Criminal Justice Reform to Return Dignity to our Community

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This statement by 103rd District Illinois State Representative Carol Ammons was made to the Champaign County Board on October 24, 2019. It has been edited to fit in our print edition; the full version is in our online edition at For more on criminal justice reform ideas, see

As a County Board member (2008-2013), I participated in the past examination of the condition of the county jail. I have been working to advance pretrial justice for over ten years. However, even people who are relatively new to this work know that we are at a special moment. Half a century after the Manhattan Bail Project first showed that money bail is unnecessary to assure court appearance, there is unprecedented, growing demand for change; far-reaching litigation is compelling jurisdictions to abruptly alter their practices; and local, state and national lawmakers are honing in on plans for comprehensive reform.

I was appointed to the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Pretrial Services, created in 2017. It is charged with conducting a comprehensive review of the state’s pretrial detention system to ensure pretrial practices in all jurisdictions in Illinois are consistent with the court’s policy statement on pretrial services.

The purpose of my visit this evening is to draw on my experience and knowledge as a member of the Commission to highlight how criminal justice reforms could impact local policy and practice. I quote now from the United States Human Rights Watch commission’s communication to us:

“Unnecessary use of pretrial incarceration betrays the presumption of innocence, the fundamental guiding principle of the US legal system, by keeping people in jail who have not been convicted of a crime. Our California report documented that between 2011-2015, close to half a million people were subject to felony arrests and held in pretrial detention, but never found to be guilty of any crime, an unjust punishment that costs taxpayers millions of dollars. Poor people jailed pretrial, with bail set, face the miserable options of taking on heavy debt to pay bail, remaining in custody until their cases resolve, or pleading guilty to gain freedom sooner, regardless of actual guilt.

“People who stay in jail lose jobs, cannot care for their children or disabled relatives, miss needed healthcare, [all] while suffering boredom, violence, disease, and physical and mental anguish. … [T]he vast majority of people released from jail as ‘sentenced’ on low-level felonies and misdemeanors were released before the earliest possible date they could have gone to trial. In other words, to assert their innocence at trial, they would have had to stay in jail longer than they did by pleading guilty … Given the coercion inherent in this choice, the convictions of innocent people are inevitable. The large-scale use of pretrial detention, resulting in pressured guilty pleas, damages the credibility of our criminal legal system.

“These harms are more profound because they apply only to those too poor to pay bail. … Given the well-documented inequities of the money bail system, Human Rights Watch commends the many stakeholders in the Illinois courts and government who are taking serious steps to reform the way courts impose pretrial incarceration.”

I urge the Champaign County Board to consider their discussion of jail within the Presumption of Innocence framework: a bail reform model created by John Ralphing from Human Rights Watch and Pete White of Los Angeles Community Action Network. This framework is as follows:

  1. Mandatory Cite and Release
  2. Restricts detention only to those who are accused of violent felonies
  3. Requires courts to conduct rigorous hearings with strict due process protections before ordering detention, bail or restrictive release conditions.
  4. Forbids the use of profile-based or algorithm-based risk assessment tools
  5. If the court orders some restrictive conditions of release, the county will bear all costs of those conditions.
  6. Re-invests money saved from reduced incarceration into community development and community-based services that will improve safety without law enforcement.

Before the board spends taxpayer dollars on a new jail, I encourage them to revisit the Institute for Law and Policy Planning (ILPP) Champaign County Criminal Justice System Assessment Final Report that we paid for in 2013. The section on pretrial justice states, “Pretrial justice in Champaign County is woefully underdeveloped, leading to a system of inefficiencies, unnecessary taxpayer costs, and possible inherent inequities in the initial handling of criminal cases. This results in unintended discrimination along racial lines and against minorities of all kinds. Change in this area will save a significant amount of resources, lightening the demand for jail beds, and reduce workloads throughout the system. It will help Champaign focus more clearly on public safety priorities.”

As a legislature, we have no less than fifteen bills on the docket in the spring that will impact the criminal justice system, the courts, and the jail system. Many of those are based on the Presumption of Innocence model. After adoption in Washington, D.C. for about the past 25 years, they only hold those accused of violent felonies. This means that only about 10% of those arrested spend time in the county jail. Similarly, in New Jersey, the overall jail population has dropped by about 55% over a span of six years.

The purpose of the Presumption of Innocence model is to comply with the US Constitution. If we arrest and detain people without a warrant, without being a substantial risk to themselves or the public, we’re actually violating their right to the presumption of innocence. All people arrested for misdemeanors and low-level felonies, and for higher-level felonies that do not allege violence are to be recommended to be released until they must show up for court. By taking similar actions in Champaign, either legislatively or administratively, we will further impact the number of people being held. We have already seen a near 32% reduction since 2017. Adoption of the Presumption of Innocence Model projects a further reduction by 25%. All people arrested should have the presumption of innocence prior to appearing in court.

It is important that Champaign County considers putting in place a separate pretrial services organization, as was recommended in the ILPP report. It is certainly more cost-effective than expanding the county jail. The new report from the Supreme Court Commission on Pretrial Services is expected to be available in April, 2020. It will contain several provisions that will impact the entire state of Illinois, not just Champaign County, including calls to restrict cash bail as a condition of release. That does not mean cash bail will be prohibited by the Illinois Supreme Court, but it may be by legislative measures.

Criminal justice reform laws drafted and passed in states across the country flip the system on its head. Instead of operating in a way where cash bail is the default, they place the burden of proof on the prosecutors, not the civilians. Prosecutors must file a motion to request pretrial detention and, in hearings, they must prove that the individual to be detained is a physical danger to others.

As we continue to study the trends in pretrial reform across the country, I hope that we are able to flip our perspective, realizing that our actions have consequences, and cause chain reactions. If we insert Champaign County into this thought exercise, what would happen? Let’s say we build a jail for $47 million, and trends continue to show that pretrial reform under the Presumption of Innocence framework results in less jail time for fewer and fewer people. We would have spent $47 million on a jail that we can’t fill, or pay for. There’s a flaw with this thought process: it’s about money, profit, revenue, and not necessarily people. Say we choose not to build a jail, and instead, we implement a Presumption of Innocence law that allows us to manage our criminal justice system humanely. We save $47 million and we save individuals their money by banning cash bail. We build homeless shelters and soup kitchens instead, for the members of our community who don’t have access to basic resources. We return dignity to our citizens and our community.

Carol Ammons is serving her third term as the full-time state representative of the 103rd District, which includes Champaign-Urbana. She has a combined twelve years of service in elected office, at the county, city and state level. Since she was elected as State Representative in 2014, Carol has worked to end the economic “race to the bottom” for Illinois families, reform the criminal justice system, defend union members and their right to bargain collectively, and protect our environment.

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