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Lawmakers discuss eliminating cash bail, improving justice system

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Chicago - Illinois state lawmakers held their first hearing of the year dedicated to the current state of criminal justice Thursday. The discussion is an effort to reform the justice system through efforts of the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government.

Members of the Senate Criminal Law and Public Safety Committees are working with the House Judiciary - Criminal Committee to improve pre-trial and sentencing issues, including cash bail and truth in sentencing. Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton posed a question to the group as the hearing started, "Does the cash bail system protect public safety, or does it protect wealth? Do our sentencing laws protect public safety, or could we be better stewards of taxpayer dollars and better serve our communities by investigating in restorative rehabilitative methods?"

Stratton said the group could be "thermostats of change" to set the temperature for what justice should look like with "equity and opportunity for all." With a prison population reaching 40,000 inmates, the Pritzker administration says Illinois needs a new standard for judges to use when it comes to decisions about bail. Ending cash bail is one of the Governor's top priorities as he says the system "disproportionately forces low-income people of color into a destructive cycle of unearned detention and instability."

"The cost of putting people in jail and having them sit there because they don't have the $200 or $500 for bail is a cost to taxpayers that we ought to eliminate," Gov. JB Pritzker said last month.

Sharone Mitchell Jr. from the Illinois Justice Project says there is over-incarceration based on poverty and thousands of inmates can't leave due to lack of access to money. He adds the vast majority of people paying the bonds are not the individuals being accused of crimes. Mitchell says for Cook County, "it's very much black women, mothers, sisters and partners that are taking the financial hit."

Brittany Williams agrees. She says her life changed forever when her husband was arrested for a traffic for a traffic charge in October 2017.

"We couldn't pay it and he was our livelihood."

"When I found out that my husband's bond was $100,000 and $10,000 just to walk, my heart dropped," Williams said. "I felt like a ton of bricks had hit me at that point. The reason being is because I knew we couldn't pay it and he was our livelihood."

The mother of three says her family lost their condo in the village of Glendale Heights and had to move in with relatives in Chicago. Her sister-in-law's living arrangements weren't the best, so Williams slept on the floor with her sons. She was able to get her husband home on electronic monitoring through a bond fund before Christmas that year, but Williams says her family still struggled to get by. Her husband's case lasted 350 days.

The Joint Committee also addressed areas of sentencing reform, highlighting mandatory minimum sentences. Pritzker previously stated his Justice, Equity and Opportunity Initiative could work with agency heads to reduce the amount of time assigned to mandatory minimums.

This is the first of several reform discussions lawmakers will have throughout the state.

Mike Miletich

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