County leaders in rural parts of Illinois are approaching next week’s historic end to cash bail with trepidation, worried they won’t have the resources or staffing to meet the demands of the new system. They’re also fearful about what holding fewer people in jail pretrial will mean for public safety in their communities.
On Monday, Illinois will officially become the first state in the U.S. to completely eliminate the cash bail system. This means judges will no longer be allowed to hold people in jail pretrial unless they are charged with specific, serious felonies and pose a safety or a flight risk.
The move has been fiercely debated for more than two years. It’s been hailed as a landmark step toward criminal justice reform by activists and Democratic state officials, challenged as unconstitutional by dozens of prosecutors and subject to a misinformation campaign during the last midterm elections.
Some county officials in central Illinois aren’t sure if the change is going to work.
“Our state might as well be in two different countries,” Cass County Sheriff Devron Ohrn said. “I think this would have been a great [law], if this is what Cook County wants. But don’t do it down here. The views and the needs of the people here are so much more different.”
But backers of the law said concerns are overblown, and any implementation challenges are a worthwhile trade-off for a more just system.
Ben Ruddell, an attorney at the ACLU of Illinois, said much of the opposition is because county officials are worried about losing out on revenue.
“I think what they’re really concerned about are their own budgets, in terms of sheriffs, and people like that, who have concerns that perhaps their jails aren’t going to be as full as they’d like them to be,” Ruddell said.
On Monday, everyone’s predictions will be put to the test. Here’s a look at how four counties in central Illinois are preparing.
“We’re inviting … anarchy”
The law putting an end to cash bail outlines several types of offenses for which a judge can deny someone pretrial release, including “forcible felonies.” These include high-level offenses such as murder and sexual assault. Crimes like kidnapping, arson and burglary also fall under this category if they resulted in great bodily harm or involved the use or threat of physical force.
Leaders in counties where meth use is a major issue are worried the inability to hold dealers in jail will exacerbate their drug problem.
“We have so many cases that are related to methamphetamine use, sale and distribution, that the scourge of that within our community cannot be addressed properly underneath the new system,” Shelby County State’s Attorney Rob Hanlon said.
Hanlon said in his county, about 55 miles southeast of Springfield, they have a total of about 800 active felony cases, and are averaging about 200 new cases a year. Hanlon estimated about 80% of those cases are meth-related.
He worries that for a county of their size — 20,000 people — releasing people charged with meth distribution in particular will only increase drug use in the county, and ultimately create a bottleneck for people needing treatment.
“By letting out the drug dealers, what are we doing to our society as a whole?” Hanlon said. “We’re inviting, to some degree, anarchy.”
Ohrn, the sheriff in Cass County, said in their rural part of the state drug treatment is hard to come by even for people who want it.
He said right now, holding someone in jail pretrial gives the person a chance to get away from the drug they’re addicted to and a safe place to be while they wait for a treatment bed to open up.
“If they’re in jail, we know where they’re at, they can’t just leave, they’re able to get off the drugs a little bit and then go,” Ohrn said.
But Ruddell from the ACLU of Illinois believes jail should never be part of a person’s drug treatment journey in the first place.
“What they need is drug treatment, so let’s find that for them,” Ruddell said. “Let’s not pretend that locking them in a cage is some kind of substitute for that.”
In Macoupin County, State’s Attorney Jordan Garrison is worried about burglaries.
“We’re rural, so residential burglaries are not much of a problem,” Garrison said. “But going into someone’s barn, or going into someone’s shed, that is pretty common.”
Macoupin County, which sits 50 miles south of Springfield, is a farming community of about 44,000 people. They rarely exceed 60 people in their jails, and Garrison, along with the two prosecutors he works with, processed about 400 felonies last year.
Garrison said nonresidential burglaries are one of the most common offenses in their area, and often don’t involve the use or threat of physical force. He said usually the same person is responsible for multiple burglaries.
Under the law, the county can hold a person charged with a nondetainable offense such as burglary for up to 30 days in jail pretrial if they violated a condition of their pretrial release.
But Garrison said a month is not nearly enough time to take someone to trial and convict them, and it’s not enough of a deterrent for a person who knows they’ll be released soon.
“So we’re going to be rushing jury trials to try to make sure this individual, who has committed a lot of property crimes, his justice is served,” Garrison said. “But rushing a court case, on either side, is not good.”
Concerns about staffing, and a plea for more resources
All the county leaders worry about staffing levels and how they will meet the new requirements under the law.
“Our office doesn’t have a vast team of attorneys that can sit back and crank out motions on motions,” Hanlon, the Shelby County prosecutor, said. “For two people to process those [and] have to file written motions as to why each defendant should or should not be detained … creates a significant burden, which the state doesn’t pay for.”
After a person is arrested, the courts are required to give them a hearing within 48 hours, where a judge will determine whether they qualify for pretrial release and, if so, what pretrial conditions, such as electronic monitoring, they can be released under.
“We anticipate a significant amount of more work to be done,” McLean County State’s Attorney Erika Reynolds said.
Reynolds is the top prosecutor for McLean County, which encompasses Bloomington-Normal in central Illinois. She is worried 48 hours may not be enough time for them to review cases, especially those involving high-level felonies such as murder, where there may be thousands of pages of discovery. The law also requires the arresting officers to prove through sufficient, “clear and convincing evidence” that a person should be held in custody, instead of the more simple probable cause statement they are currently required to write.
On top of that, Reynolds said they are currently down six staff members. Last year, they asked the state for an attorney and two additional support staff.
She said the state needs to provide more resources, similar to the $10 million Public Defender Fund created by the Illinois Legislature.
“Funding would be phenomenal; it would make us a little bit more competitive,” Reynolds said. “We’re downstate here. We’re getting into a scenario where we’re poaching from each other, like different state’s attorney’s offices.”
Aside from the increased paperwork and tighter timelines, Reynolds is also anticipating a higher volume of people failing to appear in court. Like Garrison in Macoupin County, she believes the threat of a 30-day jail stay for violating pretrial release conditions is not enough of an incentive to get people to show up for their court dates. She said it could cause a jam in the court schedule.
Supporters of the change have pointed to studies showing bail reforms don’t lead to more people skipping out on their court dates. According to a Civic Federation analysis of data from Cook County bail reform, “the majority of defendants appear for court and do not commit new crimes while on pretrial release.”
In Cass County, where Ohrn is sheriff, they have one attorney and one resident judge handling all the criminal cases. They don’t usually have many people in jail custody — Ohrn said they average around 10 people at a time.
Ohrn said because of this, they often know the people who are arrested personally.
“There’s people that just act up, but they’re not a risk,” Ohrn said. “You’re able to take him to jail and kind of just calm them down a little bit. We can’t do that anymore.”
Ohrn oversees eight full-time police officers and a couple part-time officers. He said it’s going to take his officers more time to make arrests because they will have to gather evidence proving someone is a real and present risk and therefore should be detained.
“Instead of having 20 guys on a shift to handle calls, we only have one,” Ohrn said. “When they’re dealing with one thing, we won’t have [an officer] dealing with somebody else.”
They’ve been in trainings and getting pamphlets from the Illinois Sheriff’s Association on what to do when out making arrests. But Ohrn and his staff are bracing for the potential challenges that come with such a big change. While he agreed that eliminating cash bail might help those who are arrested in bigger counties, he is worried the law will present smaller, more rural counties with new problems.
And he said officials like him in rural counties know better what their counties need than lawmakers and state officials.
“We have 10 prisoners in jail. We’re well aware of all of them.”
Mawa Iqbal covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @mawa_iqbal.