Daily Herald opinion: Now that it's here, 'cashless bail' needs careful scrutiny to see that it meets its goals
Daily Herald staff writers Barbara Vitello and Susan Sarkauskas monitored the first day of Illinois' historic venture into so-call cashless bail in suburban courtrooms on Monday and reported that, on the whole, the new system "went well," in the words of Kane County Chief Judge Clint Hull.
Of course, that phrase could apply to almost anything short of the societal doom opponents had predicted, and of course, we're talking here about a single day. A full and accurate assessment of the new process will not be possible for, at best, many months.
We have not been enthusiastic supporters of the new system, and we have natural reservations about what it could mean for the operation of the justice system and, most importantly, for the safety of crime victims and our communities. But we also recognize that the bail bond system was fraught with issues of its own. It gave people with the means to pay bond a better chance to secure their freedom while awaiting trial -- and thus maintain jobs, support their families and avoid further trouble -- than others, and studies showed it not only affected defendants of color more than white defendants but also often was applied more harshly to minority defendants than to whites.
So some modification of the system surely was needed. Whether cashless bail -- as just one component of the state's sweeping new SAFE-T Act reforming the criminal justice system -- is a proper tool for that reform can be open to debate. But now that the system is in place -- buttressed by more than a year of training and preparation by court and police personnel -- it is time to give it a chance to work.
Most of the cases Vitello and Sarkauskas saw on Monday seemed safe enough. In at least one, a defendant was ordered to be held because of a past conviction, and in many others, judges applied a variety of conditions on defendants who were released. But there were also situations of some concern. For example, a judge rejected prosecutors' request to detain two women accused of theft despite the fact that they were from out of state and had prior arrests. Prosecutors' inability under the law to ask for detention of a man facing an aggravated unlawful use of a weapons charge while on probation for a similar violation led the judge to state, in a phrase dripping with understatement, "the court is concerned."
But, a key challenge for all of us in monitoring the progress of cashless bail will be to resist judging on the basis of a single or a handful of cases, whether they validate the new system or challenge it. In their Cops & Crime column last Friday, Charles Keeshan and Sarkauskas cited a 2020 Loyola University study of a Cook County experiment with relaxed bail that found a negligible increase in numbers of defendants who skipped bail and no increase in crimes by people who were awaiting trial. A true assessment of the impact of Illinois' new policy will require even more rigorous examination of a wider range of data.
Until we have that, we must thank the court and law enforcement authorities who have worked hard to adapt to an unfamiliar new process and offer what support we can to assure that it achieves its goals.