When Loyola criminal justice professors David Olson and Don Stemen were asked by the MacArthur Foundation to research bond court and pretrial release in Cook County, they didn’t know their work would help dramatically change the justice system in Illinois.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed Illinois House Bill 3653 — which includes the Pre-Trial Fairness Act — Feb. 22, making Illinois the first state in the country to eliminate pre-trial cash bail payments.
Before the bill made it to the governor’s desk, Stemen and Olson’s research of successful bail reform in Cook County helped the bill get passed by demonstrating eliminating cash bail doesn’t threaten public safety.
Cash bail is “the amount of money defendants must post to be released from custody,” according to the American Bar Association. The practice leaves defendants the choice to pay large sums of money to be released or stay in jail before their trial.
The act will reduce the number of people in custody pretrial and change pretrial guidelines. With the new law, judges will make bond decisions based on the defendants’ safety or flight risk, not based on money, according to the Coalition to End Money Bond.
The House bill includes other criminal justice reforms such as requiring police officers to wear body cams, giving more training opportunities to police officers and other measures.
Stemen, an associate professor and chairperson in Loyola’s Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, said cash bail is known to hurt poorer people the most because the defendant or, most often, their families or friends have to come up with thousands of dollars for pretrial release.
“The people who make these policies — legislators and more often times attorneys— that are appealing to a middle class electorate, they don’t recognize $500 or $1,000 taken away from some of these populations can represent 10 percent of their income, or even more,” Olson said.
Cash bail also hurts people of color, with pretrial jail populations disproportionately Black and Hispanic, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
This act comes after the success of General Order 18.8A, a bail reform issued by the chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County in September 2017. The initiative created a process for bond-court judges where they would decide if the defendants should be released before their trials and if it created a presumption of release without monetary bail, according to Olson and Stemen’s study.
A report by the Office of the Chief Judge was released in May 2019 and deemed the increase in people released pretrial didn’t lead to an increase in crime and therefore did not threaten public safety, according to a press release from the Circuit Court of Cook County.
After this report and many news stories about the measure, the MacArthur Foundation asked Olson and Stemen to research the impacts of GO 18.8A as part of the Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge Research Consortium. The foundation “supports creative people, effective institutions, and influential networks building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world,” according to its webpage.
The Loyola professors’ research evaluated bond court-decision making, pretrial release and new criminal activity related to GO 18.8A, according to Stemen.
Olson said the MacArthur Foundation looked to Stemen and himself not only as good researchers who use rigorous methods, but also objective figures who don’t represent the agency implementing the policy and aren’t there to advance any political ideology.
Olson and Stemen’s study “Dollars and Sense in Cook County” found while there was a slight increase in people released pretrial after GO 18.8A was implemented, there was no increase in crime, and therefore public safety wasn’t harmed.
This research became key support in the legislative debate of the Illinois State Legislature for the Pre-Trial Fairness Act, according to Olson.
“Anytime our work can be used to inform policy, we find it rewarding,” Stemen told The Phoenix.
While their research is always objective, Stemen knows the value of data-driven criminal justice policy.
“Criminal justice policy is often made without research, it’s made without data, it’s made on anecdote and emotion,” Stemen said. “I think all of the work we do, we hope that what we do informs policy. Policy should be data-driven, it should be informed by empirical research.”
As far as the impact of the Pre-Trial Fairness Act, Olson said it’s “a truly substantive shift in how the criminal justice system will operate.”
In their study, Stemen and Olson found GO 18.8A saved defendants and their families $31.4 million in the six months after it was instated, allowing defendants and their families to have money for rent, food and other essentials.
While many, including the reformers who helped pass the Pre-Trial Fairness Act, are concerned about what could happen in the two years until the act is implemented in January 2023, Stemen pointed out that this gives time to research the more rural Illinois outside Cook County.