The premise that a person is innocent until proven guilty is being inverted across America. On any given day, nearly half a million legally innocent people languish in U.S jails for the simple reason that they are too poor to pay bail for their release.
This is not only fundamentally unfair, but it is also expensive and unsafe. Americans spend $14 billion each year jailing unconvicted people. According to research by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, as few as three days in jail pretrial can make a low-risk person a higher risk to public safety — likely because of the destabilizing consequences of being incarcerated, such as interrupted education and lost employment, housing and even custody of children.
Illinois has a long history of progressive pretrial reform. It was the first of only four states to abolish bail bondsmen in 1963. In 1991, it was a leader in implementing the Pretrial Services Act, which is considered model legislation throughout the country. But too many counties are building their budgets around jail costs, and too many communities are struggling with the consequences of mass incarceration. To deliver a fairer, safer and more cost-effective pretrial system statewide, I have joined with other state leaders to make Illinois part of the national movement that is working to ensure that people are not detained simply because they cannot afford to pay money for their release (even as those who can pay, no matter how high the level of danger they present to victims, witnesses or the community, are able to purchase their freedom).
This movement, called 3DaysCount, is focused on reducing reliance on money bail by implementing risk-based decision-making instead. 3DaysCount is an initiative of the Pretrial Justice Institute, the nation’s leading resource on pretrial justice reform, with over 40 years in the field and experience leading a consortium of national stakeholder groups — including courts, prosecutors, defense attorneys and law enforcement — who share a commitment to pretrial reform. 3DaysCount will provide Illinois with access to expertise and strategies needed to analyze our current system to identify sensible opportunities for improvements and to communicate these with stakeholders and the public.
Illinois is already working with statewide stakeholders and national experts on this movement. For example, three Illinois counties, Cook, Kane and McLean, are piloting a statistically proven pretrial risk assessment tool created by the Arnold Foundation called the Public Safety Assessment. By measuring the likelihood of an individual failing to appear in court, the potential for new criminal activity, and the potential for new violent criminal activity the PSA will help courts make smarter, informed decisions regarding release or detention. It also correlates to a decision-making framework that can guide the courts in determining appropriate conditions to manage the risk, or if the risk is cannot be managed, recommend that the individual be detained.
Illinois must find smarter ways to use our limited financial resources. Pretrial reform is one of those ways. It promises immediate savings for counties by removing low-risk people from their incarcerated populations; intermediate savings by enabling community members who have interacted with the criminal justice system to keep their jobs, stay in their homes, and maintain a stability that will end their contact with the criminal justice system; and long-term savings by stemming the tide of mass incarceration.
Pretrial reform is gaining momentum nationally, and Illinois can be a leader in this reform. Through the collective effort of my office, the Illinois Supreme Court, the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, Pretrial Justice Institute, and our statewide stakeholders, we will begin the process of reducing the reliance on money bail and move our state to a smart, equitable, and sustainable pretrial system.
Carol Ammons (D-Urbana) is a member of the Illinois House of Representatives who represents the 103rd District.