PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — One month ago, a new era dawned for the Illinois criminal justice system. No longer would people have to post money to get out of jail.

Some hailed it as a way to even the playing field. Others decried it as opening the doors to the jails.

But here in central Illinois, an informal service of attorneys and sheriffs has indicated that really, not much has changed.

“The past month has pretty much gone as expected,” said Peoria County State’s Attorney Jodi Hoos, who, along with her colleagues around the state, helped to craft the rules regarding the elimination of cash bail.

The veteran prosecutor also noted that for the most part, judges are seeing the “same types of cases that they did before. We just removed cash from the equation.”

Added McLean County Sheriff Matt Lane, “With the preparation we did and the training we did before this went into effect with our officers and our corrections officers, it wasn’t bad at all. It’s been a change, but it’s not been bad as far as paperwork. It was really a paperwork and a processing change.”

What changed

Sept. 18, 2023, saw the implementation of one of the well-known and probably the most controversial portion of the SAFE-T Act, the overhaul of how Illinois deals with crime. That was the end of cash bail.

If a person is held, then they are in custody until the case is finalized, either by a plea, a jury verdict, or a dismissal. If they are released, then they are allowed to remain free until something happens that might cause them to return to court. 

Offenses must either be of a certain type – a non-probationable offense or something like stalking, violating an order of protection or other forcible felonies — or a defendant must present a “real and present threat to the safety of any person.”

Prosecutors are now required to turn over “discovery” or evidence to a defense attorney before the hearing, so it can be reviewed with the person in custody. Also, possible victims are notified before a hearing as well.

Business as usual

Tazewell County Sheriff Jeff Lower said the bigger change for his department is within the jail. There, jailers are working under two systems. Warrants that were issued before Sept. 18 are under the old system and require a bond to get out. Warrants issued after Sept. 18 are under the new one, he said.

“There have been some bumps in the road and some clerical issues but we are making it work because we have to,” he said before noting that the lion’s share of the new workload is within the courthouse.

Prosecutors, judges and probation officers, he said, have to do most of the heavy lifting created by the bill. Knox County State’s Attorney Jeremy Karlin agreed with that assessment.

“One challenge is that while we are filing the same number of charges, it has vastly increased the amount of work for my offices for the cases that we are seeking detention,” said the Galesburg-based prosecutor. “Already we are challenged by high workloads in SAOs and a difficulty in finding attorneys for vacancies.

“Because this has significantly increased our workload, it has pushed an attorney and a staff person over the edge to leave the office,” Karlin said.

There are a lot of new things, he said, that have to be done in a short amount of time and for his office, which is already very busy, it’s been an adjustment.

“It really does tie up one of my attorneys all morning to handle this stuff,” Karlin said.

His colleague in Peoria County, Hoos, said the first week or so was different but overall, it’s okay.

“We met regularly with stakeholders before it went into place on how this would change the process,” she said. “Everyone kind of knew what to expect but there’s always s bump or two in the road but nothing unforeseen.”

What’s next

What effect, in the long run, this will have on Illinois remains to be seen but many point out, that not having to post a bond isn’t uncharted territory.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is that this is exactly like the federal system,” Hoos said. “The federal government hasn’t had cash in their system for years.

Up the street from the Peoria County Courthouse is the U.S. District Courthouse. Located across the street from the main branch of the Peoria Public Library, the Depression-era building has housed courtrooms for years.

And in that building, people have appeared for a judge to have him assess, after weighing what a probation officer determined regarding a person’s character and the nature of the crime, whether a defendant should stay in jail or not.

Karlin sees another issue, saying the SAFE-T Act only went halfway in looking at the issues of pre-trial detention.

“On one hand, it solved the problem of people remaining in jail because they can’t afford to be released,” he said. “But what hasn’t been addressed is the necessity for additional mental health and drug treatment resources in the community to assist those people who have been released to make sure they don’t re-offend and can address the existing conditions that brought them there.”