Fines, Fees, and Escalating Bail Bonds: Champaign County Urgently Needs to Implement the Pretrial Fairness Act

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The Champaign County Bailout Coalition (CCBC) is a grassroots organization that uses community donations to pay low bail amounts for incarcerated individuals who don’t have access to financial resources in their moment of crisis. Founded in 2018, CCBC now pays up to $2000 in bail for community members who request bail support.

Since the pandemic started in March 2020, we’ve paid more than $170,000 in bond for more than 130 community members. In 2021 alone, CCBC paid $92,000 in court-assigned bonds for 64 individuals. Over this period of time, we’ve noticed that bail amounts have significantly increased for the same criminal charges. Two years ago, bond amounts in the $100–$500 range were common to see. Now we seldom see bonds for those amounts, and instead commonly encounter them in the $2000–$5000 range. Based on the requests that we receive from individuals in the jail and their support networks, that 900–1900 percent increase represents the new “low bond.”

Champaign County’s ballooning bond amounts are disappointing to see after 2017’s SB 2034 bill (the Illinois Bail Reform Act), which obliged courts to assign bail based on the charged individual’s economic means. Clearly that legal imperative hasn’t been heeded in Champaign County, and in defiance of the decision, our courts and jails have dramatically hiked bonds without regard for the violence and trauma their negligent practices disproportionately introduce into the lives of affected working-class and Black families and communities.

Bail is an economic and racial justice issue. As the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice (INPJ) reported, of approximately 200 Champaign County residents incarcerated in the county jails, close to 70 percent were detained before trial. In other words, the vast majority of people incarcerated in Champaign County jails have been denied their right to due process and are detained solely because they cannot afford bail. Black residents are also overrepresented in Champaign County jails. From January 1, 2012 to March 11, 2020, around 58 percent of people booked into Champaign County jails were Black, according to data collected by CU-Citizen Access (the county’s population is 13.8 percent Black). Additionally, we estimate that around 85 percent of the people CCBC provides bail support for are Black.

The common understanding of the practice of money bail is that, when an individual fulfills their obligation to the court and is found innocent, their bail amount is returned to them, their family, or their friends. However, CCBC has found that Champaign County doesn’t reimburse bail amounts in whole. As a report by the Civic Federation for the Illinois Supreme Court Pretrial Practices Implementation Task Force (CF Task Force) showed, only 20 percent of bond on average is returned to the bond payer in Illinois. Most of the remaining amount (about 70 percent) goes toward fees that fund law enforcement and the court system.

In Champaign County, bail is used to extract resources from Black, brown, and working-class communities that need them most to fund the sheriff’s office, probation department, state’s attorney, and other law enforcement. Data about bail amounts in the state of Illinois, provided by the CF Task Force and updated by the Champaign County Circuit Clerk, show that Champaign County has collected more than $3.7 million in bonds during the 2019–20 fiscal year, a $500,000 increase since 2016. (Note that this number differs from the estimate previously reported in the Civic Federation Report. This is because in a long-standing civil case, Carle Hospital had been ordered by the court to file a very large bond, and then subsequently the court ordered the bond to be refunded to them. With this large civil bond revenue removed, $3.7 million is a more accurate estimate of criminal bond revenue.) Only $747,000 of this $3.7 million from 2019–20 was returned to bond payers. In Champaign County then, fines and fees become a tax for the accused (who are disproportionately Black and working class). Even when an individual is found innocent, their payment of this tax perversely supports a carceral system responsible for upending their life.

In 2019, CCBC joined the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice, a coalition of Illinois bail funds and social justice organizations, to advocate for the Pretrial Fairness Act (PFA), which passed in Illinois in 2021 as part of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus’ criminal justice reform bill, HB 3653 SFA2. The PFA abolishes money bond so that no one is detained and ripped from their community simply because they cannot afford bail. It also reduces eligibility for pretrial incarceration, regulates risk assessment tools so that they are not the sole determinant of pretrial incarceration, mandates that police give tickets rather than make arrests in cases where there is no immediate danger to public safety, decreases penalties for violating pretrial release conditions (e.g., missing a court date), requires judges to reconsider every 60 days if people on electronic monitoring can be given less restrictive conditions, and increases transparency via data collection and publication.

Recently, the Champaign County Board voted to spend $20 million to renovate and reform the Champaign County jails. In our statement to the Board about this decision, we agreed that the conditions in the jails are not liveable, especially with the massive spread of COVID-19, overcrowding, and poor ventilation. But when CCBC bails people out of jail, we see the other aspects of people’s lives that are disrupted by incarceration too. People lose their jobs, their education is interrupted, they can’t receive care for chronic and sometimes life-threatening health and mental health conditions, their families can’t pay rent, and they can’t afford food or health care, all because they can’t afford bond. Those aren’t liveable conditions either.

CCBC urged the County Board to use this money to support the implementation of the Pretrial Fairness Act, which would alleviate COVID by eliminating cash bail in Illinois by 2023 and thereby release people from the dangerous conditions in the jail. Implementing the PFA will address both the unlivable physical conditions of the jail and the unlivable conditions outside the jail that threaten people’s livelihood and well-being. Because pretrial incarceration will drastically decline after the implementation of the act, the County Board has the responsibility to invest now in viable and supportive alternatives to pretrial incarceration that people will need when they are released, such as housing, job opportunities, mental and physical health care in the community, and evidence-based, human-centered violence prevention initiatives.

Champaign County courts and jails have a demonstrated history of exploiting and defunding Black and working-class communities and misappropriating funds for their own advantage. The Pretrial Fairness Act gives them an opportunity to show that they’ve learned from their past mistakes and begin the work of contributing to a community based on cooperation and care. Even after the courts have returned the last dollar of bond to those from whom it was taken, CCBC plans to stand with their friends in Champaign County to hold them accountable for their decisions.

Learn more about Champaign County Bailout Coalition on our website! If you are interested in volunteering or donating, or if you need bail support, please email champaign.county.bail.out@gmail.com or call (765) 231-5682.

Chelsea Birchmier is a volunteer with Champaign County Bailout Coalition and a co-chair of the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) Solidarity Committee.

Phillip Ernstmeyer volunteers with Champaign County Bailout Coalition and the Bike Project. Let him know if you need a Spring bike tune-up and he will set you up.

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