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Illinois Supreme Court halts abolition of cash bail

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul is pictured in a 2014 file photo at the state Capitol in Springfield during his tenure as a state senator.

The Illinois Supreme Court halted the abolition of the cash bail system in the state on Saturday, just a day before that landmark criminal justice reform was poised to take effect.

The bail system overhaul — written into law as the Pretrial Fairness Act and the most controversial provision of the state’s widely scrutinized SAFE-T Act — was thrown off this week when a Kankakee County judge sided with authorities in 64 counties who sued to stop it from taking effect.

In his ruling, Chief Judge Thomas Cunnington wrote that “the appropriateness of bail rests with the authority of the court and may not be determined by legislative fiat.”

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul on Friday appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court to overturn Cunningham’s decision, which would only effect the counties that brought the suit and would have allowed allow much of the Chicago region to continue implement the new law.

Meanwhile, state’s attorneys in DuPage and Kane counties asked the top court to issue an order providing clarity with the state seemingly headed into the new year with more than half the state maintaining the old cash bail system and the remaining 38 counties — including Cook — ushering in a cashless bail era.

But the state Supreme Court ordered on Saturday that the Pretrial Fairness Act won’t go into effect until further notice “in order to maintain consistent pretrial procedures throughout Illinois.”

The Supreme Court has not set a date to hearing arguments on Raoul’s appeal and it wasn’t clear when the justices would take up the case.

A spokesman for the court said there would be an expedited briefing process for attorneys to file briefs before the justices will hear oral arguments.

In a statement, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he was confident the act would be found constitutional and said he looked forward to the justices’ review.

The Pretrial Fairness Act “reflects 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,” Pritzker said.

Raoul’s office didn’t have immediate comment. In a joint statement, DuPage and Kane counties state’s attorneys Robert Berlin and Jamie Mosser said: “We are very pleased with the Illinois Supreme Court’s decision. The equal administration of justice is paramount to the successful and fair administration of our criminal justice system.”

The bail reforms are just one part of the SAFE-T Act, a wide-ranging set of criminal justice reform measures signed into a law by Pritzker last year, some of which have already gone into effect.

Other measures include requiring all police departments to equip officers with body-worn cameras by 2025, expanding services for victims of crimes and changing how people who are incarcerated are counted for redistricting maps.

But eliminating cash bail proved to be the most controversial — and would have made Illinois the first state in that nation to completely do so.

Under the new law, judges would no longer be able to set a monetary bail that a person charged with a crime could post bond on to be released while their case was pending, a system that critics of cash bail say in inherently unfair and a risk to public safety.

Under the Pretrial Fairness Act, judges would continue to be tasked with evaluating whether the defendant is a public threat or a flight risk and either order them released with conditions specified by the court or detained in jail.

Supporters say it would make the justice system more equitable; opponents claim it could leave more dangerous people on the street.

Throughout this past election season, Republicans pounced on the Democratic-written SAFE-T Act and bail abolition, aiming to paint liberal opponents as soft on crime.

The experiences of other jurisdictions that have already largely eliminated cash bail, show that defendants show up for their court dates at a high rate and are largely not picking up new charges while on release. Studies also appear to show that the elimination of cash bail does not have a significant impact on crime overall.

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Illinois Newsroom gets stories from public radio stations from across the state, including WBEZ-Chicago, WCBU-Peoria, WGLT-Normal, WVIK-Rock Island, WIUM-Macomb, WNIJ-DeKalb, WSIU-Carbondale, WUIS-Springfield, and St. Louis Public Radio.

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