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Illinois will become the first state to do away with cash bail

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

We turn to two states now that are making changes to law enforcement practices. On January 1, Illinois will become the first state in the nation to end the cash bail system completely. As Mawa Iqbal from member station WBEZ reports, the state's Pretrial Fairness Act is part of a sweeping criminal justice reform package facing fierce Republican opposition.

MAWA IQBAL, BYLINE: If a defendant is facing a lower-level nonviolent charge, they will no longer have to pay a cash bail to be released from jail while they await trial. But a judge can still hold the defendant if they prove to be a flight risk or a danger to the community. Governor JB Pritzker says this reform is for the single mom who commits shoplifting but is stuck in jail because she can't afford her way out.

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JB PRITZKER: The changes that will be brought about by this new law will bring more justice and more fairness to many who have so often been forgotten.

IQBAL: Other states have come close, like California, where efforts to pass similar legislation have been stalled, with fierce opposition coming from the bail bonding industry. And advocates in Illinois were prepared for a fight here too.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Show me what community looks like.

IQBAL: At a rally earlier this year inside the state Capitol rotunda, Briana Payton of the Chicago Community Bond Fund said they're determined to see the act over the finish line.

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BRIANA PAYTON: There's been a lot of hatred, a lot of hatred targeted towards people that are getting out of jail as though they're not members of our communities. And we need to stand for people to have the presumption of innocence.

IQBAL: The battle began when the bill was signed into law last year. Republican lawmakers called the act dangerous, saying you'll open the door for violent criminals to be let out onto the streets. It became the hot-button issue for conservative candidates during the midterms in November. They were calling it the Purge Law, likening it to the horror movie "The Purge," where all crime is allowed for a 12-hour period once a year. Legal experts, however, pointed out the act outlines dozens of, quote, "forcible felonies" that a person can still be denied pretrial release for, like murder and armed robbery. But Republican elected officials continue to push back. During a winter legislative session, Democratic lawmakers introduced changes to the original act, addressing some of their concerns. But House Minority Leader Jim Durkin said Republican input was largely ignored.

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JIM DURKIN: I had to find out through the state's attorneys who were involved with these of when the next meeting was and what happened at the meetings.

IQBAL: And while many state attorneys had seats at the negotiating table, over 60 of them from all over Illinois are suing Governor Pritzker and top Democratic lawmakers. They're arguing the elimination of cash bail is unconstitutional. Their attorney, James Rowe, said during oral arguments the law should have been decided by voters.

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JAMES ROWE: The Constitution is not a grant of powers to the legislature. It is a limitation on the legislature's power.

IQBAL: The judge plans to hand down a decision before January 1. In the meantime, courtrooms and sheriff departments are moving forward with preparations for the big change. Julia Rietz, a state attorney from central Illinois, says she and other prosecutors have been attending trainings hosted by the state Supreme Court.

JULIA RIETZ: That is something that we are going to keep an eye on and look at as we move forward as to how that affects our ability to ensure the safety of our communities.

IQBAL: The high court has also been hosting a series of virtual town halls aimed at explaining the nuts and bolts of the new system. And the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice is training volunteers to court watch as judges, state's attorneys and defendants navigate this historic change.

For NPR News, I'm Mawa Iqbal in Springfield, Ill. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mawa Iqbal