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‘Where Do We Go From Here?’: Illinois Counties Prep For Massive Changes To Courts And Jails

A DuPage County courtroom in 2011.
M. Spencer Green
Associated Press
A DuPage County courtroom in 2011.

James Zay had been listening for an-hour-and-half, an exasperated smile flashing intermittently across his face, before he raised his hand to speak.

Zay, a DuPage County board member, was participating in a special board meeting where, one-by-one, county officials laid out the millions of extra costs they were anticipating in the coming years because of sweeping criminal justice reforms recently signed into law by Gov. JB Pritzker.

“I am just sitting here astounded,” Zay said after he was called on. “I mean, this is going to have a major effect on county government and guess what, other aspects of county government are going to suffer because of this, because we don’t have the money.”

The new law requires more training for officers, gives arrestees three free phone calls and makes it easier for police departments to fire bad cops. But the changes that will have the biggest impact on county budgets and court systems are the mandate that all law enforcement officers be equipped with body cameras, and the unprecedented abolition of cash bail for defendants awaiting trial starting in 2023.

Zay’s fellow board member Donald Puchalski was equally worried.

“Where do we go from here?” Puchalski asked.

“An unfunded mandate”

It’s a question being asked with various levels of alarm in many counties throughout the state.

West-suburban Kane County Chief Judge Clint Hull said he is part of a task force with other local leaders looking at potential impacts of the bill and problem-solving implementation. Hull said the reforms could put a financial strain on many local governments.

“I think everybody’s aware of the fact that there are some counties that are in a position where, you know, this is going to increase costs and where does that money come from? And the hope is that the state will figure out a funding mechanism to help counties,” Hull said.

In DuPage, the state’s largest county outside of Cook, leaders’ early estimates are that they’re going to need dozens more prosecutors and public defenders, they’ll need to open up new courtrooms to handle pre-trial detention hearings and will need more probation officers to support the expected crush of defendants released from jail while awaiting trial.

Meanwhile at the DuPage county jail, Sheriff James Mendrick estimates the number of detainees held pre-trial will drop by about a third once bail is abolished. However, he is not predicting any cost savings. That’s because the same number of people will come through and have to be processed, they just won’t be staying as long.

All told, DuPage officials are predicting an additional $65 million in costs over the next five years because of the new criminal justice law. Other counties have not yet started estimating costs and savings, but many officials are expecting a big impact on their budgets. That has some county leaders worried, at a time when budgets have already been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is an unfunded mandate on every county in the state,” said DuPage State’s Attorney Bob Berlin.

However, not everyone shares the same view of the financial impacts.

Advocates have brushed aside logistical or budgetary concerns as the necessary costs of creating a more just system but they’ve also argued that the law could actually save money.

In Lake County, Sheriff John Idleburg is anticipating eventual cost savings in his own budget, as the jail population drops. That will be offset somewhat, he expects by an increase in electronic monitoring and additional staffing in that area, but he said housing a detainee is much more expensive than keeping an eye on someone on house arrest.

“Not about dollars and cents”

Of course the impact of the new law goes far beyond budgets. Getting rid of cash bail will fundamentally change justice systems throughout Illinois, by taking money out of the equation and giving judges only two choices: release someone pre-trial or keep them locked up.

The Illinois State’s Attorneys Association opposed the abolition of bail. Lake County State’s Attorney Eric Rinehart joined with Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx in supporting the end of money bond.

“Wealth-based bond systems do not work,” Rinehart said. “We need to be talking about safety and flight risk, not about dollars and cents when it comes to these important decisions.”

Idleburg said it was important for the county to be responsive to the desires of its constituents, and he’s seen a shift in recent years among Lake County residents who have embraced criminal justice reform and now support the end of cash bail.

In DuPage, court leaders believe the impact will go well beyond budgeting.

Bond funds are meant to ensure people show up for their court dates, but the money ends up being funneled into a number of different pots. Much of it goes into a county’s general fund, it’s also used to pay victim restitution and private attorneys. County leaders said the end of cash bail will result in a higher demand for public defenders, because pre-trial detention hearings will be more robust, and there may be fewer private attorneys willing to take on clients without the assurance that they can get first crack at the bond money defendants were forced to pay to win their freedom.

DuPage Public Defender Jeff York said the new law will have a “profound” effect on his office, and said historically it will be the most important change since the public defender was created.

“Does that result in a more fair system?”

State’s Attorney Bob Berlin said he is looking at changes to their training and protocols for prosecutors on how to ask a judge to deny release to defendants. He’s expecting a big increase in the number of people locked up without the possibility of release pre-trial, and an increase in the use of electronic monitoring.

Berlin said he and other officials are pressing state lawmakers to pass so-called “trailer bills” to modify the language of the bail legislation and make it easier for judges to keep pre-trial defendants in jail.

“We’ve accepted that we’re not going to have cash bail. But our goal, many of us are seeking just to give judges more discretion,” Berlin said.

Lawmakers have said they are open to modifying language, but not willing to make any substantial changes to the legislation.

With the end of cash bail, Berlin is expecting a lot more cases to go to trial because fewer defendants will feel pressured to plead guilty to get out of jail.

“That means there’s a burden on victims, witnesses, police and prosecutors,” Berlin said. “Does that result in a more fair system? You know, I’m not convinced that that’s the case … I believe that most people who plead guilty plead guilty because they are guilty. I know that some believe that in certain cases, people will plead guilty just to get out of jail. I think that’s a very small percentage of people.”

Berlin is asking county leaders to budget for 27 additional prosecutors because of the new law. That’s partially because of more intense pre-trial detention hearings, and the anticipation of more trials.

But the biggest factor, according to Berlin, is the new requirement that all police officers be outfitted with body cameras. That means every arrest could have hours of video evidence that prosecutors will be obligated to review. Defense attorneys, including the public defender’s offices will have the same obligations.

“The amount of material that we’re going to have to go through and analyze and talk about with our clients. It’s just, it’s significant,” York said.

In DuPage, Berlin and Mendrick believe the elimination of cash bail will mean more missed court dates and more repeat offenders committing crimes while awaiting trial.

Hull, the Kane County chief judge, is not expecting that impact in his jurisdiction. Hull said Kane County started using pre-trial risk assessments and reminding defendants about court dates about five years ago, and it led to a big drop in missed court dates. He’s expecting that trend to continue.

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.

Patrick Smith is a producer for WBEZ. He produces All Things Considered and reports on politics and criminal justice. Patrick joined WBEZ as an intern in 2013 and never left.