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Cash Bail is Abolished in Illinois, Reformed in Houston

Cash Bail is Abolished in Illinois, Reformed in Houston

The system of cash bail for defendants is controversial. Opponents say those who cannot afford to pay languish in jails even if they have been charged with minor crimes. However, the system is being overhauled nationwide after Illinois became the first state to abolish it, and a large Texas jurisdiction is allowing people to be released without posting cash bonds.

In February, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill making his state the first state in the nation to abolish cash bail payments for jail release for defendants who have been arrested and are waiting for their cases to be heard.

Opponents point to perceived inequities in the system. Lawsuits were filed in Texas in recent years by some defendants who said they ended up spending long periods behind bars because they could not afford bail.

Cash bail has been controversial for decades. Criminal justice reformers brand it a “poor people’s tax” that disproportionally impacts people of color. It leaves people who cannot afford to come up with the money spending weeks in cells, often for minor crimes like larceny or drug possession.

The abolition of cash bail was contained in the Illinois Pre-Trial Fairness Act, a sweeping package of criminal justice measures, NPR reported.

Other provisions included the requirement for police officers to be licensed by the state of Illinois and to wear body-cams by 2025. The reforms were enacted after the death of George Floyd, a Black man, by a police officer in Minneapolis last year. It would expand training opportunities for officers, make it easier to decertify officers who commit misconduct, and boost a victims compensation program by making more money available to survivors.

Illinois is the first state to eliminate cash bail. However, the system has been almost eliminated in New Jersey and Washington D.C.

Although Texas has not enacted sweeping reforms on a state level, its most populous county has stopped defendants who are accused of low-level crimes from putting up cash to be released from jail on bond.

The Texas Tribune reported Harris County has freed tens of thousands of people accused of misdemeanors while awaiting trial. A report released this month indicates letting the defendants out without paying bonds does not appear to increase the chances of subsequent arrests. The report suggested the percentage of defendants who were arrested for new crimes within a year of their original arrest fell after the county changed its bail practices.

The Tribune reported the independent monitors hired to keep an eye on reformed Harris County compiled the study in settlement of a civil rights lawsuit after a federal court ruled its cash bail requirements unconstitutionally discriminated against impoverished defendants people. A similar lawsuit involving bail practices in felony cases is making its way through the courts.

Federal courts in Harris and Dallas counties have previously ruled that the widespread practice of requiring preset cash bail amounts without considering a defendant’s financial situation was unconstitutional. 

However, the Tribune noted one state senator is seeking to reign in the reforms in Harris County. Sen. Paul Bettencourt filed legislation in January that would require people accused of crimes to pay cash before they are released from jail if they are arrested when released from jail on a no-cost bond. The legislation sets a minimum bond of $10,000 for defendants who are accused of multiple felonies.

If you or a family member is accused of a crime, you should talk to a Texas criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. The state’s jails have a harsh reputation. It’s important to remain out of jail if possible. Please contact us on our website or call (214) 720-9552.