As advocates who work with survivors of domestic and sexual violence, we’ve seen the horrific physical and mental damage caused by these crimes, and we’ve seen how the criminal legal system often has failed survivors. However, change for the better is coming due to Gov. Pritzker’s signature on criminal justice reform legislation (HB 3653) that will end cash bail.
Policies rooted in fear-mongering and racism have never actually served survivors, yet too many people continue to push an agenda that perpetuates a criminal legal system that fails victims and disproportionately harms Black and brown communities.
In our work, we regularly see survivors seeking help and justice from law enforcement. And we continually see them turned away, disbelieved and discounted.
Our research found that Chicago police did not make any arrests in 80-90% of sexual assaults reported in the last decade. Similar inaction allows dangerous abusers to possess firearms. An investigation by the Chicago Tribune found more than 34,000 Illinois residents had their right to own a gun revoked by the courts, yet they haven’t turned over their weapons or had them confiscated by law enforcement. Nearly 80% of these people may still be armed.
That’s not what we consider advocating for survivors, nor is the tendency of some law enforcement officials to use survivors as an excuse to oppose reform, all the while ignoring the lived experiences that informed these structural changes.
Contrary to the false arguments advanced by opponents, the new pretrial system will not simply release every person arrested for a crime. It will ensure people held for forcible felonies, including domestic or sexual violence, are kept for up to 48 hours. It will give the state time to gather information about whether someone poses a threat to others. It is a welcome reform to the current practice of releasing people who can pay the bond with minimal regard for the threat they may pose.
When cash bail is ended two years from now, judges will have an enhanced role. Rather than setting bail somewhat arbitrarily and moving on to the next case, judges will be required to evaluate all factors to decide whether a person should be incarcerated pre-trial.
Imagine what an equitable and survivor-centered process would look like:
• Domestic violence survivors will be able to ask police to finally take away their abuser’s guns after their FOID card is revoked.
• Sexual assault survivors can report rape to police and be treated with dignity and taken seriously.
• Judges will be able to make better decisions about who needs to remain in custody with more time, information, and cooperating victims.
We can’t be afraid to empower survivors to be part of the process, and we must allow for folks who have caused harm to repair their lives and be restored to the community.
The protections for survivors in the bill are a step toward a better system for all. People with low incomes will no longer be locked up simply because they can’t pay bail. People won’t be incarcerated pre-trial because of racist and classist stereotypes that perpetuate fear against Black men, in particular. Survivors will be able to advocate for what they need to feel safe and secure.
These pretrial reforms give survivors a much-needed risk-based assessment of their case and the chance to be heard and respected in this process. Illinois should be proud to be the first state to abolish cash bail with support from the community of survivors, and finally create a system rooted in equity and safety, rather than fear.
Madeleine Behr is policy manager at the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, and Amanda Pyron is executive director of The Network: Advocating Against Domestic Violence.