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Nobody should sit in jail because they are poor. Can we agree on that?

When a proposed reform would expand human rights, we should start from a place of trying to make it work.

Cook County Jail
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

When the University of Illinois announced last summer that it would reopen its Urbana-Champaign campus this fall despite the threat of COVID-19, skeptics called it a foolish risk.

But, as Clare Proctor reported for the Sun-Times on Monday, the university has achieved phenomenal success in containing the virus — no hospitalizations and no deaths — by rigorously enforcing a scientifically sound testing protocol.

Too often, the public debate about major policy decisions runs toward opposite corners — good idea, bad idea — when, as the University of Illinois has shown, the debate should be less about whether to do something than about how to do it right.

Certainly, that has been the case when it comes to the intersection of education and COVID-19, which is why we have argued for the reopening of elementary schools, high schools and universities during the pandemic, as long as proven safety measures are in place. Remote learning is a miserable substitute for in-person learning.

But the same evidence-based approach should be taken, though so often it is not, when governments address all sorts of big issues, from health care to immigration, in which the goals of reforms are noble and right but the risks are real and significant.

Start from a place of trying to make it work.

We are thinking specifically today of the state Legislature’s decision last week to do away with cash bail in Illinois. The intent of the reform is undoubtedly noble — to end a system of bail that punishes people for being poor. But critics are calling on Gov. J. B. Pritzker to veto the bill, saying it would lead to dangerous people walking free from jail.

Expanding human rights

What are we missing here? If the reform is righteous — if in fact it is wrong to hold poor people in jail simply because they can’t make bail while middle-class and rich people go free — then why kill the bill?

When a proposed reform would expand human rights, we should start from a place of trying to make it work.

In both New York and California, where eliminating cash bail was associated with an increase in crime, the reform was implemented without much planning. There was too little monitoring of those who were released, critics say, and too little effort was made to provide drug and mental health treatment. People also were released who should not have been, whatever the system of bail, because they posed a demonstrable danger to society.

That’s not an argument, though, for continuing a cash bail system that punishes people for being poor. It’s an argument for eliminating cash bail in a way that does not make communities less safe — as New Jersey appears to have done.

As Frank Main of the Sun-Times reported on Monday, New Jersey eliminated cash bail in 2014 after first developing an objective risk-assessment algorithm to decide who was safe to free while awaiting trial. New Jersey also invested heavily in pretrial services, such as drug counseling.

Since then, Main reports, New Jersey has seen a 40% decrease in the number of people held in jail, fewer racial disparities in jail, less violence and no large increase in the number of defendants who blow off court hearings.

Cook County experience

In Cook County, judges dramatically reduced the use of cash bail beginning in 2017, which has resulted in a big jump in the number of defendants on house arrest with ankle bracelets. During most of the four years since then — up until last year — violent crime in the county actually declined, indicating that the reduction of cash bail did not put the public in greater danger.

Where Cook County has gotten it wrong, in our view, has been in allowing more people charged with murder to be released on electronic monitoring. The quickest way to undermine popular support for efforts to reduce the jail’s population, by eliminating cash bail or other means, is to release on electronic monitoring people who should be held behind bars.

Get to the goal

Our takeaway from the success of the University of Illinois in containing COVID-19 is that when a goal is important enough — like delivering a quality education to a generation of Americans — we should be awfully reluctant to be deterred by the difficulty of getting there. The U. of I. developed its own test for the virus and tests students twice a week.

It’s one thing, we know, for a contained university campus to pull off such a feat. The university’s administrators have been free to tweak their pandemic protocols at will. It is quite another to revisit and revise state legislation, especially on a matter so controversial as eliminating cash bail.

But the bill, if signed into law by Pritzker, will not go into effect until 2023. County sheriffs and courts will have two full years to lay the groundwork to make it work.

Let’s start from a place, we hope, of mutual agreement: Poverty should never be a factor in who sits in jail.

Let’s make this law work.

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