Illinois criminal justice reform ends cash bail, changes felony murder rule

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs historic criminal justice reform package into law, reforming almost every area of the justice system — from police accountability to pretrial detention to sentencing.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs criminal justice reform package.

Photo courtesy of Rep. Sonya M. Harper

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs criminal justice reform package into law, making Illinois among the first to eliminate the use of cash bail. (Photo courtesy of Rep. Sonya M. Harper)

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a landmark criminal justice reform package into law Monday, making the state among the first to eliminate the use of cash bail. The sweeping overhaul, passed by the Illinois General Assembly during the final hours of its January lame-duck session, includes changes to almost every area of the justice system — from police accountability to pretrial detention to sentencing.

In a statement released Monday, members of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, which spearheaded the bill, emphasized that the push for reform would continue.

“Today is a historic first step toward winning real safety and justice in our communities,” said Illinois State Sen. Robert Peters, D-Chicago. “The road to this point has been long and has been filled with difficulties, but after we celebrate today’s victory, we must keep up the fight.”

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The law survived, despite opposition from a coalition of law enforcement groups and police unions that has argued that the legislation would tie the hands of cops in pursuit of suspects “and allows criminals to run free while out on bail.”

Here’s a breakdown of key changes in the sweeping new law. While some provisions in the law won’t be implemented for a few years, the majority take effect July 1.

Pretrial fairness

Changes to pretrial detention are among the provisions that will be implemented more gradually under the new law. Cash bail won’t be entirely abolished until Jan. 1, 2023.

Nonetheless, its eventual elimination in Illinois represents a historic win for reformers nationwide. Nonviolent defendants who cannot pay for release will no longer remain incarcerated before trial, reversing a measure that opponents say criminalizes poverty. Instead, judges must impose the least restrictive conditions necessary to ensure a defendant’s appearance in court.

The law also requires courts to provide additional pretrial services for defendants, such as reminders of court dates and transportation to court appearances.

‘Felony murder’ reform

Illinois’ controversial “felony murder” rule previously allowed for first-degree murder charges against defendants who commit certain felonies—including robbery, burglary, criminal sexual assault, and arson—that result in someone’s death.

That applied even in cases in which police or another third party caused the death. In one 2019 case, prosecutors in Lake County, Illinois, charged five teenagers with the murder of their friend, who was shot and killed by a homeowner as the group allegedly attempted a burglary.

The law signed Monday narrows the definition of felony murder, though the changes do not apply retroactively to those sentenced under the old rule. Prosecutors will now be prohibited from filing first-degree murder charges in cases where a third party, like a police officer or a homeowner, caused the death.

Deaths in custody

The criminal justice overhaul also offers more transparency to families whose loved ones die while locked up in Illinois prisons and jails.

Effective July 1, state correctional facilities will be required to notify family members about deaths in custody, as well as the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, a state agency that conducts research and analysis.

Mothers who say they were left in the dark when their incarcerated sons died of Covid-19 are continuing to call for improved communication between state prison officials and families.

Police certification

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul pushed successfully to include in the criminal justice overhaul a new process to decertify Illinois police officers who commit abuses.

Police officers in the state must be certified by the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board. But currently, their certification can be revoked only if they are convicted of a felony or certain misdemeanors.

The new law empowers the training and standards board to investigate misconduct allegations and pursue decertification, regardless of whether an officer was charged, convicted, or disciplined by their department.

The law also requires all Illinois police departments to report misconduct investigations to the state, though language added in the eleventh hour appears to add barriers to public oversight.

Other key changes in the new criminal justice reform law include:

  • Ban on chokeholds in all cases in which an officer has not been authorized to use deadly force
  • Body camera mandate for all law enforcement agencies by 2025
  • Anonymous complaints to be allowed in investigations of police misconduct complaints
  • Rights for pregnant prisoners, including access to their newborn, hygiene products such as diapers, and educational materials
  • Mandatory minimums can be bypassed by the courts in certain situations, including offenses involving drugs, retail theft, or driving on a revoked license because of unpaid financial obligations

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