How will eliminating bail affect counties' finances?

Cash bail is being eliminated throughout Illinois next year as part of a criminal justice reform bill called the SAFE-T Act, a piece of legislation that has become a hot-button issue ahead of the Nov. 8 election.

Detractors of the new law - formally known as the 2021 Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today Act - claim not only that it will unravel many long-held court practices intended to keep communities safe, but that it will create large funding gaps in county budgets that draw on defendants' bail money to cover fines and fees if they are convicted or plead guilty.

"Most of us are finding this to be a positive move forward for access to justice, but there's another side where this is going to be a burden for taxpayers, and we obviously don't want that, either," said Lake County Circuit Court Clerk Erin Cartwright Weinstein. "I'm concerned. It's really hard to continually pay for these mandates from the state without any funding from them."

Weinstein said Lake County distributes about $3 million from cash bonds annually. The majority of that money is divided among county, state and municipal agencies, as well as victims and attorneys. When defendants are convicted or plead guilty to crimes, the bond money is used cover fines, fees and other restitution.

Without cash bonds, that money may go away, some worry.

"The first use of bail bond money that comes into the county is for victim restitution and that's where you're trying to make those victims whole," said Hawthorn Woods state Sen. Dan McConchie, the chamber's Republican leader. "They're not sure how they'll handle victim restitution going forward."

Proponents of the SAFE-T Act say the financial effects won't be quite so dramatic. The only actual revenue loss will be the 10% processing fee court clerks collect when bond is posted, which is usually 10% of the bail amount.

Bond amounts can range from a few hundred dollars for minor crimes to hundreds of thousands of dollars for serious felonies.

In the suburbs, bond processing fees amounted to as much as $695,358 in Will County in 2021, according to a report prepared by the Civic Federation for Illinois Supreme Court Pretrial Practices Implementation Task Force.

Officials from multiple counties report the processing fees collected are not earmarked for anything specific and are simply added to the county's general revenue fund, which covers the majority of countywide operations.

DuPage County collected $570,606 of those fees, according to the report. In Lake County, the bond processing fees amounted to $532,807 in 2021. Kane County took in $475,734 last year, and the amount collected in McHenry County added up to $220,309.

Many court clerks worry that without cash bond, funds that would normally go toward paying fines and fees will take longer to collect following a verdict, or it won't be collected at all. But others disagree with the effect the new law will have on fine collections.

"The impact is measurable and not as dramatic as was being promoted by opponents," said Laurence Msall, head of the Civic Federation, a nonpartisan Illinois government finance authority. "The fees and fines are still enforceable; they just aren't as immediately accessible to the county court clerk."

In Cook County, the largest court system in the state, bond processing fees amounted to less than $1 million last year, but they are up to more than $1.2 million so far this year. Still, the elimination of cash bonds is widely supported among most county board members and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

"The projected impact of $1.4 million related to these fees is already a part of our budget recommendation (next year)," said Preckwinkle spokesman Nick Shields. "With no material impact to operations, and with this figure representing such a small part of the overall Cook County public safety budget, we have no concerns."

Due to the combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and a growing emphasis on reducing jail head count, most counties were already receiving less in bond processing fees in recent years.

Cash bonds have been widely criticized by justice reform advocates as being a larger burden for poor Americans, oftentimes minority groups. A 2018 report by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority that precipitated the new law showed 90% of inmates in county jails statewide at any given moment were awaiting trial and generally couldn't afford bond amounts.

But revenue concerns from other county officials still linger.

"We are seeing requests for additional staffing related to pretrial fairness," said McHenry County Administrator Peter Austin. "Six new positions, and you couple lost revenue with new staffing positions and inflation, and it's a tough situation."

Those pretrial services will assess the risk of releasing a defendant from jail to await trial. Judges still have discretion to order defendants accused of more serious crimes held without bail. But ultimately the head count in jails is expected to be significantly reduced, which could result in cost savings, experts said.

Suburban legislators said they have been working with county officials to make the transition as smooth as possible.

"Change often isn't easy," said state Sen. Adriane Johnson, a Buffalo Grove Democrat. "We've anticipated and tried to address many of the costs of making this change. You see that in the millions of new dollars available to law enforcement and public safety initiatives. Like everything else, I would expect this to be an ongoing process and an ongoing part of the budget process as needs are identified."

McConchie notes even the American Civil Liberties Union, which has supported the SAFE-T Act, has expressed concerns about the state's readiness for the new law's implementation.

"This is part of the problem with the fact they passed a bill that nobody had read, that has a bunch of issues and where we have not had meaningful negotiations for fixes to this bill in the run-up to its implementation," he said. "The ACLU has said there's a lot of unintended consequences."

ACLU of Illinois lawyers recently said there was a need to clarify and correct some language of the new law, which could be done by the legislature during next month's veto session.

Austin said the breadth of the SAFE-T Act creates many unknowns for counties and it requires vigilance in the first few months of 2023 to monitor the effects on county operations. "We'll pull together our criminal justice leaders to ask how this is really working out," he said.

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