Illinois High Court Halts Elimination of Cash Bail

(AP) The Illinois Supreme Court has halted provisions of a new law that would eliminate cash bail for criminal defendants, issuing a stay hours before the new policies were set to take effect Sunday.

The high court said in Saturday’s order that the stay was needed to “maintain consistent pretrial procedures throughout Illinois” as the court prepares to hear arguments on the matter.

The order said the court would coordinate an “expedited process” for an appeal the Illinois Attorney General’s Office filed Friday with the court of a local judge’s ruling, which found that eliminating cash bail for criminal defendants is unconstitutional.

Democrats who control the Illinois General Assembly had pushed for eliminating the posting of a cash bond — a practice long used to ensure that people accused of crimes appear at trial. Opponents of requiring bail contend that it results in the poor and innocent sitting in jail awaiting their day in court while the wealthy and guilty go free.

Republicans, meanwhile, said they fear that eliminating cash bail risks potentially releasing dangerous criminals.

In November, Democrats sought to appease that criticism by adding numerous offenses to a list of crimes that qualify a defendant to remain jailed while awaiting trial.

Kankakee County Circuit Judge Thomas Cunnington ruled Wednesday that the General Assembly had violated the constitution’s separation of powers clause by eliminating cash bail in the so-called SAFE-T Act criminal justice overhaul. He said the issue of bail should be left to the judiciary.

Prosecutors and sheriffs from 64 Illinois counties had filed a lawsuit challenging the bail provision, called the Pretrial Fairness Act, although Cunnington’s ruling did not include the injunction they had sought.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul said Saturday he appreciated the high court’s haste to address the issue. But Raoul, a Democrat, said in a statement it was “important to note that the order issued today by the court is not a decision on the merits of the constitutionality of the SAFE-T Act.”

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he was confident the act would be found to be constitutional by the justices. He said in a statement the law’s changes reflect “long overdue reforms that will make Illinois families safer and prevent violent offenders from being able to buy their freedom just because they are wealthy enough.”

Before the state Supreme Court issued its stay, Illinois counties were positioned to handle defendants’ first court appearances quite differently beginning Sunday. Cook County officials were vowing to proceed with the reforms while many counties named in the lawsuit said they would not implement them.

The SAFE-T Act was borne of the May 2020 police-involved murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Buoyed by a state Supreme Court commission that recommended reform, lawmakers eliminated bail to ease the burden on defendants, who are innocent until proven guilty, who can’t afford the price of pretrial freedom.