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Illinois just eliminated cash bail. One lawyer says other states should follow

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Illinois just became the first state to completely eliminate cash bail after years of debate over its potential impact on the state's justice system. That law took effect on Monday. Essentially, this means that Illinois can no longer force people to put up money in order to get out of jail while waiting for their trial. Historically, studies show cash bail disproportionately impacts low-income communities and people of color who often can't put up large sums of money. Some states have eased rules surrounding cash bail, but Illinois became the first to ban it completely, ruling it was unconstitutional. Alec Karakatsanis says that's a step in the right direction. He's a former civil rights attorney and the founder of Civil Rights Corps. His group has been fighting cash bail across the country for years.

ALEC KARAKATSANIS: I never forget the first time I went into a jail cell in Alabama as a young lawyer, and I met a woman who had been arrested because she owed some old tickets. And she had a cash amount that she had to pay in order to get released. And the amount was way more than she could ever afford. And she hadn't seen her 1-year-old child and her 4-year-old child in weeks. She didn't know where they were. They had just taken them away from her when they put chains on her, and the police arrested her...

SUMMERS: Wow.

KARAKATSANIS: ...For her old tickets. And unless she could afford to pay cash, she was going to be stuck in jail indefinitely. And this is the problem when you base a decision about who is in a jail cell and who is free based on how much access they have to money. It distorts the entire conception of justice in our legal system.

SUMMERS: I mean, over the years, when I've had conversations with opponents of cash bail about this policy, they often make an argument that's about public safety. Some argue that upending cash bail would put dangerous criminals on the streets - that it could contribute to a state of lawlessness. So, I mean, if someone's concerned about the impact of the Illinois law that was just enacted this week or other states or municipalities that might pursue, either now or in the future, similar legislation, what would you tell them?

KARAKATSANIS: This is an area that has been widely studied by researchers across the country. We recently had a landmark trial where we put all of the evidence before the court in Los Angeles, Calif., where our organization was challenging the constitutionality of the cash bail system. And the court in Los Angeles issued a landmark decision that concluded that cash bail actually makes our society less safe. And the reason it does this is - by jailing people just because they can't pay, it destabilizes their lives, interrupts their medical and mental health treatment. They lose their jobs. They lose their housing. They lose their family connections. And all of these things actually make people more likely to get arrested in the future.

SUMMERS: You've talked a bit about how bail practices across the landscape are changing in cities and states across the country. Can you give us a couple of examples of other places that are looking at reforming bail?

KARAKATSANIS: A couple of the most exciting places are places where we've worked a lot and filed lawsuits - are Los Angeles and Houston. So in Houston first, a few years ago, when we filed a challenge challenging the constitutionality of the misdemeanor cash bail system, about 20,000 human beings were detained every single year in Harris County, Texas, alone, just because they couldn't pay small amounts of money in misdemeanor cases. And after we won our lawsuit there, almost 20,000 people are freed from jail every single year in Harris County, Texas. And researchers appointed by the federal court have been studying the outcome for years. And what they've learned is that not only have there been tens of thousands of people not jailed, but that crime goes down.

SUMMERS: I want to push on that a little bit. I'm a former political reporter. And I remember in the context of a number of political campaigns that were waged, particularly those during the early days of the pandemic, many Republican challengers in particular made the point that releasing people without cash bail leads to higher crime levels, as we've seen this sort of violent crime increase in major U.S. cities during the pandemic. What do you say to that argument?

KARAKATSANIS: There is absolutely no evidence that increased use of cash bail improved safety. It was never about public safety. The only use for cash bail recognized in American law is to encourage people to come back to court. It doesn't even serve that purpose, according to the research. People are much, much more likely to come back to court if you give them the support that they need. The reason that most people miss court is that they didn't know where to go. They weren't told the right date. They didn't have transportation. And so what a lot of cities are doing are introducing policies that are designed to actually meet those needs, and those cities are seeing dramatic increases in people coming back to court.

SUMMERS: That was Alec Karakatsanis, founder of the Civil Rights Corps. Thanks so much for being here.

KARAKATSANIS: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Tinbete Ermyas
Juana Summers
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.