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'There will be chaos': McLean County lawyers prepare for new system without cash bail

Ron Lewis and Erika Reynolds
McLean County Public Defender Ron Lewis and State's Attorney Erika Reynolds.

Depending upon which side of the courtroom a lawyer sits, the elimination of cash bail produced a range of reactions from elation to frustration but both sides agree that a smooth transition will require flexibility and hard work as the new law takes effect Jan. 1.

The ability to remain in the community while a case is pending will reduce the harm experienced by many defendants now held in jail because of an inability to pay a cash bail, according to McLean County Public Defender Ron Lewis.

“Research has shown that cash bond does not correlate to whether someone shows up to court at a later date. Keeping someone in jail on lower and mid-level crimes just because they can’t post more money has detrimental effects on one’s ability to pay rent, support a household, and attend to other needs. This has a significant impact on defendants who are already indigent,” Lewis said in a written response to questions from WGLT.

McLean County State’s Attorney Erika Reynolds holds a different view of the measure that will allow people to be released without paying cash.

In their lawsuit filed in October against four Democratic leaders, including Gov. JB Pritzker, the attorney general and two legislative leaders, Reynolds and outgoing McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage claimed that the Pretrial Fairness Act (PFA) will be troublesome for prosecutors and law enforcement.

Increased workloads for prosecutors and delays in court proceedings were two of the potential issues facing the state’s attorney’s office if cash bail is eliminated, Reynolds argued in the court filing that will be heard in Kankakee County next week along with similar complaints from more than 60 state’s attorneys statewide.

The state’s attorney “will be severely hamstrung in her ability to proceed with the prosecution of cases, and the courts will be stripped of their inherent ability to manage their courtrooms,” Reynolds argued in the court filing.

In a statement released after the lawsuit was filed, Sandage and Reynolds said they support “meaningful, responsible bail reform,” but have concerns that the new law could have a negative impact on public safety.

Despite their differences of opinion on the impact of the law on the criminal justice system, Lewis and Reynolds agree that McLean County stakeholders are ready to meet the potential challenges in the courtroom when the first detention hearings are held Jan. 3.

“McLean County has done well with stakeholders meeting in advance to work on PFA implementation. With this knowledge and the ongoing training from the Illinois Supreme Court’s Implementation Task Force, the Public Defender’s Office will adapt to provide the representation the statute requires, “Lewis commented.

Prosecutors will work with public defenders starting in late December to determine the status of individuals held in jail and who may be eligible for release Jan. 1 under the new law. Based on the average jail census of 230, about half of those detained could be released Jan. 1 when the new law become effective, said Reynolds.

“But again, that changes from day to day, so we have to wait to do that towards the end of the year to properly identify those people,” said Reynolds. Those who are not released Jan. 1 and the state seeks to detain will have hearings in early January.

Staff from all criminal justice agencies are aware that the process may change as the lawsuits move through the courts, said Reynolds.

“Everybody is coming to that table with the understanding that this is extremely fluid, and those things may change,” said the county’s top prosecutor.

As chairman of the McLean County Bar Association’s criminal law committee Bloomington defense lawyer Brendan Bukalski conducted a training session for attorneys on the new law. He and his colleagues welcome the changes that will keep fewer people in jail and provide more opportunity at detention hearings for defense lawyers to make their case for release.

The negative consequences predicted by opponents of the law are not supported by data or past experiences with other criminal justice reforms, said Bukalski.

“The sky won’t fall with this but because it involves such a sweeping reform and so many unanswered questions, there will be a huge learning curve,” said the defense lawyer with the Johnson Law Group.

Among those unanswered questions are new rules for how police will handle certain offenses, said Bukalski. He cited trespassing, considered a non-detainable misdemeanor under the new law, that could become a low priority for police, leaving a homeowner to deal for some time with an unwanted visitor, a scenario filled with dangerous possibilities.

The expedited schedule for hearings mandated under the new law could be burdensome in the early stages of implementation, said Bukalski, especially in smaller counties with fewer judges. The possible release of more people is unlikely to produce chaos in the community, said Bukalski, but the preparation for bond court calls for major shifts in how the process works.

“This is a total reformation of everything. There will be chaos logistically,” said the defense lawyer.
To help with the anticipated increase in the workload, the state’s attorney’s office requested and was granted an additional attorney and two support staff by the McLean County Board.

“Even though we are suing the governor over this, we felt that it was important as a service to the community and the courthouse in general, that we have a voice at the table so that if it does get implemented, we are operating under the idea that we are ready for any contingency,” said Reynolds.

Illinois lawmakers are expected to consider changes or clarifications to the criminal justice reform law this week during the fall veto session.

Edith began her career as a reporter with The DeWitt County Observer, a weekly newspaper in Clinton. From 2007 to June 2019, Edith covered crime and legal issues for The Pantagraph, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Illinois. She previously worked as a correspondent for The Pantagraph covering courts and local government issues in central Illinois.