Illinois Supreme Court Upholds Elimination of Cash Bail

The Illinois Supreme Court has announced its opinion on the Pretrial Fairness portion of the SAFE-T Act, and by a 5-2 decision, they have ruled it as constitutional. This strikes down a lower court ruling in December 2022 which found that the portions of the SAFE-T Act that abolished cash bail were unconstitutional. Thus, the elimination of cash bail is now set to go into effect September 18, 2023 in Illinois.  Illinois becomes the first state in the U.S. to totally eliminate cash bail, and it comes at a time when crime in the state remains at the top of the nation.

“Today’s ruling by the Supreme Court confirms Illinois’ status as the state of lawlessness and disorder,” stated FOP State Lodge President Chris Southwood. “The court ignored the pleas of nearly every prosecutor in the state of Illinois, Democrat and Republican, that the elimination of cash bail will put dangerous criminals back on the street instead of keeping them in jail or forcing them to post cash bail as they await trial. Many of those offenders will commit crimes again within hours of their release.” 

The elimination of cash bail was included as part of the controversial, sweeping criminal justice reform legislation known as the SAFE-T Act, which was passed by the 101st General Assembly on the last day of its Lame Duck Session and signed into law by Gov. Pritzker in February 2021. The Pretrial Fairness Act, which abolishes the current cash bail system, was slated to take effect January 1, 2023. 

However, lawsuits were filed by state’s attorneys in 65 counties alleging abolishing cash bail was unconstitutional. On December 28, 2022, Kankakee County Judge Thomas Cunnington found that the pretrial release portions of the SAFE-T Act violated the bail clause, the crime victims’ rights clause and the separation of powers clause of the Illinois Constitution. The Illinois Supreme Court issued a stay on December 31, 2022, delaying the effective date of the Pretrial Fairness Act until it heard arguments and ruled on its constitutionality. 

The Illinois Supreme Court heard oral arguments on both sides of the case on March 14, with the lawsuits over cash bail pitting Gov. Pritzker and the state’s Democratic leaders against nearly half of Illinois’ state’s attorneys and county sheriffs. The Court took up the case on an expedited schedule. 

The Supreme Court’s opinion said that the Illinois Constitution does not mandate that monetary bail is the only means to ensure criminal defendants appear for trials or the only means to protect the public. The law eliminates the cash bail system currently used in court which let those who could afford it pay their way out of jail while others who could not make bond would remain in jail. The SAFE-T Act lets judges decide who gets pretrial release and who should be held in custody.

Supporters of eliminating cash bail argue that it gives courts the ability to look at a number of factors for pretrial decisions without focusing on a person’s ability to pay.  Opponents of eliminating cash bail believe the law handcuffs judges, who will now only be able to detain people charged with specific felony crimes. There are also arguments that this law will make the state less safe by releasing more violent criminals back into society. 

Illinois House Republicans opposed the SAFE-T Act and the elimination of cash bail, as the legislation passed with only Democratic votes. Leader Tony McCombie (R-Savanna) established the Truth in Public Safety Working Group during the Spring 2023 Session. The group met multiple times over 10 weeks with stakeholders and presented a package of bills which included multiple changes to the SAFE-T Act and Pretrial Fairness Act. The working group met with Democrats to discuss the proposals at the end of the Session, but nothing has moved forward.

“Politically compelled public policy has never been in the best interest of the people,” McCombie stated. “The liberal court’s decision today is not surprising, and this decision will undoubtedly hurt families and businesses around the state. Anyone that is familiar with the court system knows this is not about the ability whether an offender can post bail, but a progressive movement to decriminalize crime and promote an environment for repeat offenders.”

Police and law enforcement agencies across the state have vehemently opposed the SAFE-T Act. State Rep. Dennis Tipsword (R-Metamora), a member of the Truth in Public Safety Working Group, has served over 30 years in law enforcement and currently works as a Chief Deputy in the Woodford County Sheriff’s Office.

“The theme from the left is simple – go easy on criminals,” Rep. Tipsword stated. “As a member of law enforcement, I know that this Act makes our communities less safe. Its centerpiece, the elimination of cash bail, puts repeat offenders back onto our streets. It’s dangerous, unconstitutional, and must be repealed. Many lawmakers have chosen to vilify us as professionals and put criminals ahead of our safety.”

“There is a way to accomplish goals of the advocates of pretrial reform without eliminating cash bail,” added Rep. Dan Ugaste (R-Geneva). “I have been advocating for it over two years now, and I have asked supporters of the SAFE-T Act to work with Republicans on this law to enact reforms which keep the public safe and also take into consideration the rights of the accused.”