Activism / November 15, 2023

How We Ended Cash Bail in Illinois

Lessons from a successful struggle.

Will Tanzman
lavette mayes posing outside of her home
Lavette Mayes of Chicago lost her home and her business while she was jailed pretrial for more than a year following her first-time arrest in 2015. Unable to make bail, she missed her son’s kindergarten graduation and her daughter’s eighth grade graduation. Illinois recently became the first state to abolish cash bail. (Erin Hooley / AP)

In September, Illinois became the first state in the country to entirely end money bail—the practice of requiring people who have been accused but not convicted of a crime to pay a ransom in order to avoid being jailed for weeks, months, or even years while waiting for trial. People who are jailed before trial for even a few days or weeks because they cannot afford bail can lose jobs or housing, which destabilizes their lives and families, and are much more likely to be convicted or pressured into a plea deal and end up with higher sentence lengths.

This reform—known as the Pretrial Fairness Act—also establishes the strongest set of protections on pretrial freedom in the United States. Illinois judges can now order a person to be jailed before trial only if a prosecutor provides evidence that the person is unlikely to show up for court or likely to cause harm to others. At a time when many are declaring the criminal legal reform movement over, a casualty to racist backlash, this law shows that long-term organizing can translate movement energy into real change.

The first months of implementation have been largely successful. While a similar reform in New York that took effect in 2020 suffered intense backlash stoked by law enforcement and Republican leaders in the state, media have reported the rollout of the Pretrial Fairness Act with terms like “mostly smooth sailing,” and judges have said that the new process “seems to be working”—a far cry from the “end of days” predicted by hostile court system actors before the law went into effect.

Early indications suggest that the number of people incarcerated pretrial in Illinois is going down significantly. The state’s largest jail, Cook County Jail, saw a 500-person decrease in just the first month of implementation. This trend is also being seen in central and Southern Illinois: the Tazewell County Jail has seen a 30 percent decrease and Madison County’s jail population is down 20 percent. While this is cause for celebration, it must be tempered by the realities that such numbers always fluctuate. In addition, the smaller number of people who are booked into jail are likely to stay longer on average, which could cause numbers to increase again in the future. In the coming years, however, we expect to see the total number of people passing through Illinois jails dramatically decrease.

Organizers and movement leaders won the Pretrial Fairness Act after an extended campaign that was punctuated by pivotal moments of mass protest but also relied on years of grassroots organizing and coalition building between those movement moments. The People’s Lobby, which I serve as executive director, began exploring this issue in the wake of the 2014–15 wave of Black Lives Matter protests through a series of conversations in churches impacted by incarceration, where we soon identified that money bail was an important—and at that time largely overlooked—piece of the mass incarceration system. Other core groups in the fight—like Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, the Chicago Community Bond Fund, Chicago Appleseed, and the Illinois Justice Project—each found their own way to the issue in the years following the Ferguson uprising.

Leaders at these organizations recognized that none of us had the power to win on our own, so we came together and launched the Coalition to End Money Bond in 2016. We intentionally assembled a set of groups with important complementary capacities in the movement ecosystem: base building, electoral work, inside game, policy expertise, political education, and direct service. We anchored the work in an abolitionist orientation but worked to bring in more moderate groups who were willing to join because the abolitionist organizers were serious about power and created a clear center of gravity for the broader bail reform movement in Illinois.

We used elections to build our team of champions in office and show that supporting bail reform could be part of a winning electoral formula. The People’s Lobby made bail reform a core element in the large-scale door knocking that we did in 2016 to elect Kim Foxx as Cook County state’s attorney on a platform that included ending money bail. Foxx’s win over “tough on crime” prosecutor Anita Alvarez by a landslide—with a huge boost from the mass protests over the police murder of Laquan McDonald and the #ByeAnita campaign launched by movement leaders—played a huge role in expanding support from elected officials who began to worry about being on the right side of public opinion that was shifting towards decarceration. Over the seven years of the campaign, we elected a number of organizers and allies to different levels of government, including TPL’s political director Robert Peters, who was one of the early organizers of the coalition and then continued his role as the unofficial organizer inside the legislature.

At the same time, the coalition’s legal policy experts played a key role in building credibility with court system actors, legislators, and the administration of Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker. Lawyers with deep roots in and relationships with the movement talked with media, engaged in systematic court watching, testified at hearings, and ultimately drafted comprehensive legislation that became the broadly respected starting point for any serious conversation about reforming the state’s pretrial system.

The coalition also took advantage of opportunities to win partial victories and continue building the broader power bloc we needed to win transformative change. Our first success came in pushing for a change in the pretrial practices in Cook County, which includes the City of Chicago and has long operated one of the largest jails in the US. Through a combination of impact litigation and civil disobedience, we pushed the county’s chief judge to establish a policy requiring judges to limit money bail to amounts defendants could actually afford to pay—which led to tens of thousands fewer people jailed since the order was issued in 2017.

After this local success, the coalition created the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice, bringing together a statewide mix of power-building and faith-based organizations and volunteer groups such as bail funds and Black Lives Matter chapters in smaller cities. We organized in Chicago, in the suburbs, and in smaller cities and towns, all with an eye toward the legislative map of the state and the need to get to a majority of votes in the Illinois General Assembly. We built a supporter list of more than 100 organizations endorsing the Pretrial Fairness Act, including several groups fighting gender-based violence.

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In 2020, the coalition’s longer-term power building converged with the uprising in response to the murder of George Floyd to create the right conditions to pass the Pretrial Fairness Act. By the beginning of 2020, we had moved Governor Pritzker to declare ending money bail his top legislative priority. Soon after the uprising began, the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus began pushing for a larger package of criminal justice reforms.

Our coalition was able to get the Pretrial Fairness Act included in this omnibus because our sponsors in both houses were active players in the Black Caucus and in relevant committees, and we had built a statewide movement of people who mobilized thousands of contacts to legislators during the months when this bill was moving through the legislature. Senator Peters worked closely with both the coalition and the Black Caucus to ensure the Pretrial Fairness Act was included and not watered down. At the same time, Democratic leadership in both the Illinois House and Senate were in the midst of a once-in-a-generation transition. Our champions leveraged this transition to get the Pretrial Fairness Act over the finish line in January 2021 as part of the SAFE-T Act.

Throughout the campaign, we made public education, media, and narrative work a central priority, including both sharing the stories of people impacted by pretrial incarceration and having real conversations about the root causes of violence and the resources communities need to be safe and thriving. This was important both in our organizing to pass the bill and in the fight to defend it against backlash. In the 2022 elections, the Illinois Republican Party made attacks on bail reform the centerpiece of their strategy to take on Democrats across the state. In August 2022, Trump’s largest donor in the state funded a $40 million misinformation campaign that included fake newspapers with full-page spreads of mug shots of men of color who were supposedly about to be released under the new law and doctored camera footage showing a white woman screaming as she was attacked on the street by Black men.

Two of the coalition’s 501(c)(4) groups hit the doors and phones to defend legislators who had voted for the Pretrial Fairness Act, while the broader coalition called out the misinformation through letters to the editor, a report, and talking to press. The fact that grassroots organizers were directly countering these attacks in conversations with voters showed Democratic leaders that they did not need to run from criminal justice reform and could instead publicly defend the Pretrial Fairness Act and use their platforms and resources to call out the racist lies of the opposition. This work also strengthened the coalition’s relationships and credibility with legislative leaders. Voters rejected racist fearmongering and reelected Governor Pritzker and widened the Democratic supermajority in the legislature, which effectively shut down efforts to repeal the bill. The campaign overcame a final hurdle on July 18, when the Illinois Supreme Court ruled against a court challenge that had temporarily delayed implementation and ruled that the state would end money bail starting on September 18.

This transformative change shows the incredible set of possibilities for criminal legal reform at a moment when some are declaring defeat in the face of racist backlash. The fight in Illinois will continue, as the coalition now works to ensure that judges are properly enforcing the Pretrial Fairness Act and to counter the next wave of backlash from law enforcement and the Illinois GOP. Organizers are also clear that ending money bail is not the end of this fight but rather a step toward abolition and liberation and will be working on the next set of structural fights for a world where communities are safe because people have the resources they need to thrive.

Will Tanzman

Will Tanzman is executive director of The People’s Lobby. He has served as one of the lead organizers on the statewide campaign to pass the Pretrial Fairness Act, which ended money bail throughout Illinois.

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