Illinois led on bail reform — and it’s working

Twenty-five years ago, my brother-in-law walked out of a prison cell and into a community that was ill-equipped to welcome him back. He had served his time — but as he tried to get back on his feet, he faced challenge after challenge. He was excluded from the labor market. Employers refused to consider him as an individual. All they saw was his criminal record.

People returning from prison face tremendous barriers, which can make it nearly impossible for them to return to the workforce. I Have a Bean was founded to create opportunities for people like my brother-in-law, who were still being held back even after serving their time. We’re about two things: producing great coffee and employing formerly incarcerated people.

In the 17 years since we started, we’ve not wavered from those commitments. I Have a Bean is just one of many employers across the country — from small businesses like ours to large companies like JPMorgan — that see value in employing the justice-impacted workforce. Hiring individuals with criminal records is a simple solution to help employers find hardworking and talented employees.

Most people don’t realize that you don’t even need a criminal record to be kept out of the workforce. On any given day, hundreds of thousands of people are locked up in local jails. Most of them have not been convicted of a crime, they simply cannot afford the amount of money assigned to their release (commonly called cash bail). In practice, this means that people — even those who are legally innocent — may be held in jail for months at a time, based on nothing more than their financial situation. And there is an abundance of evidence that suggests that those who undergo pretrial detention, regardless of time spent, experience serious and long-term harm. Often, they will plead guilty just to get out of jail with time served, saddling them with a criminal record.

Cash bail also hurts businesses. Between 1970 and 2015, the pretrial population increased 433%. In states where cash bail remains law, businesses are forced to fire individuals who cannot show up for work because they cannot afford to pay bail. Employers must then spend precious resources recruiting and retraining talent. Creating pretrial release criteria whereby a defendant who poses a minimal flight risk or danger to the community can be returned to their home and job creates a steadier workforce.

So last year, our legislature took decisive action. Illinois became the first state in the country to ban cash bail, under the Illinois Pretrial Fairness Act, which among other things eliminated cash bail and created a new, well-defined process to guide the decision making for detention. Upon passage, the Illinois courts moved to establish pretrial services and supervision options for counties that previously had no options other than cash bail.

Money that would have otherwise been spent on unnecessary and arbitrary bail can now go back into our communities, strengthening Illinois’ economy. Under the new policy, those critical dollars will fund investments in historically disinvested communities, enabling sustained prosperity through access to better food, housing, jobs and business opportunities.

Moreover, bail reform appears to be working well in the state so far, and evidence suggests that it will not negatively impact public safety. Specifically, a recent study from Loyola University Chicago found that, from 2017 to 2020, bail reform efforts had no impact on new criminal or violent activity by those who were released pretrial in Cook County.

Businesses have the power to transform communities and, with it, the responsibility to engage communities beyond the boardroom. Policies that make our state stronger, safer, and more prosperous — as Illinois’ bail reform effort has done — are good for business because they are good for communities.

I commend my fellow business leaders, community advocates, the legislature and the governor for their leadership on this essential issue.

• Pete Leonard is founder of Wheaton’s I Have A Bean coffee shop, which offers employment opportunities for previously incarcerated men and women.

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