15 November 2023
Lessons from a successful struggle.
In September, Illinois became the first state in the country to completely eliminate money bail — allowing people who have been charged but not convicted of a crime to be held for weeks, months or even years. Ransom is required to be paid to avoid going to jail. While awaiting trial. People who are jailed for a few days or weeks before trial because they cannot afford bail may lose jobs or housing, which destabilizes their lives and families, and makes them They are more likely to plead guilty or be forced into a plea agreement and ultimately end up with a higher settlement. Sentence length.
This reform – known as the Pre-Trial Fairness Act – also establishes the strongest set of protections on pre-trial liberty in the United States. Illinois judges can now order a person jailed before trial if the prosecutor provides evidence that the person is unlikely to appear in court or is likely to harm others. At a time when many are denouncing the criminal legal reform movement as a victim of racist backlash, this legislation shows that long-term organizing can channel the energy of a movement into real change.
The first months of implementation have been largely successful. While similar reforms that took effect in 2020 in New York faced intense backlash by law enforcement and Republican leaders in the state, the media have reported the rollout of the Pretrial Fairness Act with terms such as “running mostly smoothly” and Judges have said that the new process “seems to be working” – a far cry from the “end of days” predicted by hostile court system actors before the law was implemented.
Early signs show that the number of people held in pretrial jail in Illinois is declining significantly. The state’s largest jail, Cook County Jail, saw a reduction of 500 people in the first month of implementation. This trend is also being seen in central and southern Illinois: the Tazewell County jail has seen a 30 percent decrease and Madison County’s jail population has dropped by 20 percent. While this is cause for celebration, it should also be tempered by the reality that such numbers are always fluctuating. Additionally, lower numbers of people in prison are likely to last longer on average, which could lead to numbers rising again in the future. However, in the coming years, we expect the total number of people passing through Illinois prisons to decrease dramatically.
Organizers and movement leaders won the Pre-Trial Fairness Act after an extended campaign that was punctuated by key moments of mass protest, but also relied on years of grassroots organizing and coalition building between those movement moments . The People’s Lobby, where I serve as executive director, began exploring this issue through a series of conversations in churches impacted by incarceration in the wake of the wave of Black Lives Matter protests in 2014–15, where we soon recognized that money bail was an important—and at the time largely ignored—part of the mass incarceration system. Other main groups in the fight – such as Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, Chicago Community Bond Fund, Chicago Appleseed, and the Illinois Justice Project – each found their way onto the issue in the years following the Ferguson uprising.
The leaders of these organizations recognized that none of us had the power to win on our own, so we came together and launched the Coalition to End Money Bonds in 2016. We intentionally assembled a set of groups with important complementary capabilities in the movement ecosystem: base building, electoral work, insider play, policy expertise, political education, and direct service. We began the work in an abolitionist orientation but worked to bring in more liberal groups who were willing to join because abolitionist organizers were serious about power and they created a clear center of gravity for the broader bail reform movement in Illinois. Make.
We used the elections to build our team of champions into office and show that supporting bail reform can be part of a winning electoral formula. The People’s Lobby made bail reform a core element in the massive door knocking we did in 2016 to elect Kim Foxx as Cook County state’s attorney on a platform that included eliminating money bail. Fox’s landslide victory over “tough on crime” prosecutor Anita Alvarez – coupled with massive protests over the police killing of Laquan McDonald and a huge boost from the #ByeAnita campaign launched by movement leaders – played a huge role in increasing support from elected officials. He began to worry about being on the right side of public opinion which was moving towards imprisonment. Over the seven years of the campaign, we have had a number of organizers and allies at various levels of government, including TPL Political Director Robert Peters, who was one of the coalition’s early organizers and then continued in his role as an informal organizer. Kept. Legislature.
Additionally, the coalition’s legal policy experts played a key role in building credibility with court system actors, legislators, and the administration of Illinois Governor JB Pritzker. Lawyers with deep roots and ties to the movement spoke to the media, engaged in systematic court monitoring, testified at hearings, and ultimately drafted comprehensive legislation that would end any serious conversation about reforming the state’s pre-trial system. Became a widely respected starting point for.
The coalition also took advantage of opportunities to achieve partial victory and continue building the broad power block needed to win transformational change. Our first success came in pushing for changes in pre-trial practices in Cook County, which includes the city of Chicago and has long operated one of America’s largest jails. Through a combination of influence litigation and civil disobedience, we pushed the county’s chief judge to institute a policy that would require judges to limit money bail amounts to the amount defendants can actually pay – because of which tens of thousands Since the order was issued in 2017, fewer people have been sent to jail.
Following this local success, the coalition created the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice, bringing together a statewide mix of power-building and faith-based organizations in small towns and volunteer groups such as bail funds and Black Lives Matter chapters. We organized in Chicago, the suburbs, and small cities and towns with an eye on the state’s legislative map and the need to win a majority in the Illinois General Assembly. We created a supporting list of more than 100 organizations supporting the Pre-Trial Fairness Act, including many groups fighting gender-based violence.
In 2020, the coalition’s long-term power building converged with the insurrection in response to the murder of George Floyd to create the right conditions for passing the Pretrial Fairness Act. In early 2020, we asked Governor Pritzker to declare ending money bail his top legislative priority. Soon after the insurrection began, the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus began pushing for a major package of criminal justice reforms.
Our coalition was able to get the Pretrial Fairness Act included in this omnibus because our sponsors in both houses were active players in the Black Caucus and related committees, and we had built a statewide movement of people who gathered thousands of contacts with legislators during this time. months while this bill was moving through the legislature. Senator Peters worked closely with both the Coalition and the Black Caucus to ensure that the Pretrial Fairness Act was included and not weakened. At the same time, the Democratic leadership in both the Illinois House and Senate was in the midst of a once-in-a-generation transition. Our champions took advantage of this change to bring the Pre-Trial Fairness Act across the finish line in January 2021 as part of the SAFE-T Act.
Throughout the campaign, we made public education, media and narrative work a central priority, including sharing the stories of those affected by pre-trial detention and the root causes of violence and the resources needed to keep communities safe and thriving. Involves having a real conversation. This was crucial in both our organizing to pass the bill and the fight to save it against the backlash. In the 2022 elections, the Illinois Republican Party has made attacks on bail reform a centerpiece of its strategy to take on Democrats across the state. In August 2022, Trump’s largest donor in the state funded a $40 million misinformation campaign that included fake newspapers running full-page spreads of mug shots of people of color, purportedly in support of the new law. and included camera footage showing a white man. The woman was screaming as she was attacked by black men on the street.
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Two of the coalition’s 501(c)(4) groups pounded doors and phones to defend legislators who voted for the Pre-Trial Fairness Act, while the broader coalition responded with letters to the editor, a report, and press coverage. Gave wrong information by talking. , The fact that grassroots organizers were countering these attacks in direct conversations with voters showed Democratic leaders that they do not need to run away from criminal justice reform and instead publicly advocate for the Pre-Trial Fairness Act. Can defend and use their platforms and resources to expose racist lies. Opposition. This work also strengthened the coalition’s relationships and credibility with legislative leaders. Voters rejected racist fear-mongering and re-elected Governor Pritzker and expanded the Democratic majority in the legislature, effectively shutting down efforts to repeal the bill. The campaign passed the final hurdle on July 18, when the Illinois Supreme Court ruled against a court challenge that had temporarily delayed implementation and ruled that the state would end money bail starting on September 18.
This transformational change represents the incredible potential of criminal legal reform at a time when some are declaring defeat in the face of a racist backlash. The fight will continue in Illinois, as the coalition now works to ensure judges are properly enforcing the Pre-Trial Fairness Act and combat the next wave of backlash from law enforcement and the Illinois GOP. Organizers are also clear that ending money bail is not the end of this fight, but a step toward abolition and liberation and that they will work on the next set of structural battles for a world where communities are safe because people Have the resources they need. ,