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Criminal justice and police reforms in Illinois sure to lead to a more just world

The end of cash bail and the mandate for police reforms are part of a fight to reform a system that for too long has served only the wealthy and punished the poor.

Cook County Jail.
Cook County Jail. Finally, we are bringing justice to a system that has only served the wealthy and punished the poor, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle writes.
Andy Grimm/Sun-Times

There is much to celebrate this week, including the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the inauguration of a new president.

Here in Illinois, we are also celebrating history being made in Springfield.

An omnibus criminal justice reform bill passed by the Legislature this month represents an historic step in the fight for progress. It moves us closer to the “promises of democracy” of which Dr. King spoke and the “more perfect union” for which our nation’s founders hoped. By ending cash bail and mandating police reform across the state, it provides us with an opportunity to repair past harms and begin to regain the trust of our Black and Brown communities.

Yet, those opposed to the bill’s contents have continued down a familiar path, repeating tropes that have been used for decades. Whether it’s the “free-for-all” tall tale, the evocation of the myth that “no cash bail causes higher crime,” or the “too-much-too-soon” obstructionist narrative, the people who stand in the way of reform are obviously well-practiced.

But as both our Founding Fathers and those who fought for civil rights in the last generation would remind us, there will always be opposition to change. Reform is never easy, but the fight for a more just and equitable world is always worth it.

We know that reducing the pretrial population held at the jail is the just and equitable thing to do. Thanks to the local bond reforms passed in Cook County in 2017, many people have benefited from the decision to only hold the accused if they are a flight risk or a danger to the community. Those accused of a crime, who don’t pose such risks, have been able to keep their jobs, continue their education and take care of their children while awaiting trial.

Many are unaware that 50% of women admitted to the Cook County Jail self-report as mothers. As a mother myself, it pains me to imagine the harm done to a child whose mother has to await trial behind bars for weeks or months, only to be found innocent.

Yet, on the other side of the coin, it must be clearly stated that it is also just to continue to detain those who pose a risk to themselves or others. The reforms laid out in the bill do not mean that violent criminals will now be able to walk out of jail at their leisure. By building on the process that has already seen success in Cook County, we do not have to worry that a dangerous person, wealthy or not, will be unexpectedly able to exit the system.

Detractors have also pointed to the rise in violent crime throughout the pandemic in 2020 and implied a link to Cook County’s bail reforms. To those who put forth those false correlations, let me be clear: This specious connection is patently false.

Most recently, a study issued last November by the MacArthur Foundation in partnership with Loyola University reported no negative impact on the crime rate in Chicago due to our bail reform efforts. I am grateful to professors David Olson and Don Stemen for their careful and illuminating study.

Finally, to those who have concerns that these reforms are occurring too quickly — as a former history teacher, I must point them to a history book. Dr. King and our Founding Fathers surely were met with similar arguments designed to stifle progress, yet they persisted.

I will also remind those opposed that these issues have been the subjects of Illinois Supreme Court commissions, hearings before the Legislature and debate across the state for decades. This bill was the culmination of years of effort, and the effective date in two years gives us even more time to ensure that the legislative changes are implemented responsibly.

As the bill moves forward in the legislative process, and we continue the celebrations this week, I encourage us all to remember Dr. King’s words:

“Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark…to the sunlit path of racial justice.”

This bill, once signed into law, will ensure that we live up to Dr. King’s charge and continue down the path set forth by the fathers of our democratic republic.

Finally, we are bringing justice to a system that has, for far too long, served only the wealthy and punished the poor. Let’s get the job done and make criminal justice reform a reality in Illinois — history reminds us that the fight is always worth it.

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