U.S. Representative Danny Davis (7th) is looking to make Illinois bail reform national. On Jan. 18, he introduced House Bill 4833, which would require state governments to change their laws regarding bail and trial procedures in two significant ways.
If a person is arrested for a non-violent misdemeanor crime and hasn't been arrested in the past, the state can't require them to post bail in order to get out of jail. In addition, the state must give them an opportunity to have their charges dismissed against them if they complete a mental health treatment program, a drug rehab program or a community service program.
The bill also has language requiring the U.S. Attorney General to review studies on bail reform and pretrial release programs to "determine best practices" to reduce the amount of money state spend on federal funds in connection to pre-trial imprisonment. Nothing in the bill would actually require the states to follow those recommendations.
During a press conference held on Jan. 25 at Greater St. John Bible Church, 256 North Waller Ave., in Austin, Davis told reporters that he was confident that the bill has a good chance of passing. Most of the bills that pass get bipartisan support, the congressman said, before touting his experience in getting his bills passed even when Republicans control Congress and the Oval Office.
The push for bail reform has been ongoing for a number of years. Proponents have argued that the current bail bond system essentially discriminates against the poor — those who can afford to pay bail can get out easily, while those who can't are stuck in jail.
Davis said he fully supports the idea.
"The only reason a lot of those individuals are in jail is because they don't have the money to pay bail," he said.
The congressman also said that, generally speaking, he doesn't believe jail time is necessarily the best way to address the issues that caused people to commit crimes in the first place.
"Often, when people are locked up, they shouldn't be locked up," he said. "They should be seen by mental health professionals."
In June 2017, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed Senate Bill 2034, which covered some of the same ground as Davis' bill, making several changes to how Illinois handles bail for individuals accused of non-violent crimes.
It gives the inmates a right to have a lawyer or, if she or she can't afford a lawyer, a public defender, at a bail bond hearing. When figuring out conditions for getting the defendants released, it asks for judges to operate from that assumption that, ideally, those conditions should be "non-monetary" and "least restrictive." The judges have discretion to balance that against the defendant's livelihood to actually show up in court. And it automatically reduces bail by $30 per day for every day a defendant spends in jail.
As of Jan. 28, the bill had eight co-sponsors—all of them Democrats (including Rep. Bobby Rush and Rep. Robin Kelly from Illinois.
When asked whether a bill like this stood a chance in a Republican-controlled Congress and with Donald Trump in the White House, Davis said that he felt that it did.
"I'm optimistic," he said. "Most legislation needs to have bipartisan [support] in order to pass."
The congressman cited a bill that made treatment of sickle-cell disease eligible for 50-50 Medicaid matching funds, which was passed with bipartisan backing and signed by then-president George W. Bush.
"It was the same kind of environment, where Democrats weren't in charge of the House," he said. "President Bush signed on it because he felt it made good sense."
Willie Wilson, an entrepreneur and former mayoral and presidential candidate, has been pushing for bail reform and using his own money to help bail out the kind of defendants Davis' bill would help. He was among several community activists, elected officials and clergy who joined the congressman at the press conference.
"[It will have] a lot of impact," he said. "It would be saving hundreds of millions of dollars around the country. [And] it's a moral issue, to have human beings in jail who can't afford to pay bond, and they're non-violent."
Cook County commissioner Richard Boykin (1st) said that he was impressed with how much money the bail reform saved the county, and how much it reduced the prison population. He argued that keeping people in jail without a good reason hurts the defendants and, by extension, the communities they live in.
"All you learn is to be slicker and wiser in the ways of criminality," Boykin said. "I'm pleased that [Davis] understands the problem," Boykin said. "The time is right for this kind of legislation."
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