DOWNTOWN — A Chicago lawmaker on Friday introduced legislation that could put an end to cash bonds in Illinois.
"The presumption of innocent before proven guilty is a cornerstone of the American judicial system," Democratic state Rep. Christian Mitchell said Friday. But "in our current system, whether or not someone is in jail [pending trial] has more to do with wealth than risk."
Mitchell's "Equal Justice For All Act," would eliminate the use of cash bonds in Illinois, allow people charged with nonviolent crimes to be released on their own recognizance and provide pretrial support to ensure people remember to appear for their court dates.
Under the bill, defendants who are deemed by a judge too dangerous to be released still could be held in the county lockup or electronically tracked under house arrest.
According to Mitchell, 95 percent of people in Cook County Jail are awaiting trial. Sixty-two percent of inmates cannot afford to post bond to go free, the lawmaker said.
"As long as access to money remains a factor in who is incarcerated and who is released pending trial, our criminal justice system is punishing people for being poor," said Sharlyn Grace, an attorney and analyst with the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice.
Mitchell, whose 26th District runs along the lakefront from the Near North Side to the South Side, and Grace joined several activists Friday to announce Mitchell's bill at the Thompson Center, 100 W. Randolph St.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart came out last year in favor of eliminating money bonds, which he dubbed costly and ineffective. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in October called for a public hearing on bond reform — arguing that unnecessary incarceration wastes taxpayer money.
"Often, as I'm walking through the jail," Dart said last year, "I'm talking to people who are no more dangerous to society than you and I. People are in here because they committed an insignificant crime and can't pay an insignificant bond because they're poor."
Dart argued that defendants should only be held in jail pending trial for two reasons: They're either a flight risk or too dangerous to society to roam free. Dart estimates it costs at least $150 a day to house an inmate.
That's "a terrible waste of resources," Mitchell said.
"Those are resources that can be spent on education, investment in jobs and social services that would not only strengthen communities, but create the conditions in which crime would not happen as much in the first place."
The Rev. Dwayne Grant of Englewood's Xperience Church recalled being incarcerated in his younger years. His wife was left to care for five children because the family couldn't afford to post bond.
"There are thousands of people in our community who sit in jail — not because they have been convicted of a crime, but because they cannot afford bail," Grant said. "They lose their jobs. Sometimes it puts their families in jeopardy, and it forces them into a downward spiral. This, friends, does not make communities safer."