Illinois Bail Reform Makes Justice System More Equitable and Fair

By: Laurie Garduque

Bail Data Analysis Pretrial and Bail September 18, 2023

The justice system in MacArthur’s home state of Illinois is set to become more just, equitable, and fair without increasing crime, thanks to the Pretrial Fairness Act. While many people and organizations worked towards this landmark reform bill for years, MacArthur’s Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) helped support non-partisan analysis and research and education around key parts of the bill.

The Pretrial Fairness Act makes a range of reforms to the criminal justice system in Illinois. One of the most significant changes is eliminating cash bail and redesigning the pretrial process and decision-making. Illinois is the first state in the nation to ban cash bail entirely.

The end of cash bail in Illinois, which goes into effect September 18, 2023, will reduce the discriminatory impact of the justice system in the state. In the past, cash bail left people in jail who could not afford to pay bond, while those with greater access to resources were released and able to return to their families, jobs, and homes.

Under the new system, people are released from jail unless the State’s Attorney initiates a petition for detention, based on the risk of a defendant committing another crime or fleeing prosecution. When this occurs, a hearing is held, evidence of risk to the community is presented and evaluated, and the judge determines if pretrial release will be granted. By removing the role of money and wealth from pretrial release, the Pretrial Fairness Act will promote greater equity and fairness, particularly for people with lower income and members of historically marginalized communities in Illinois.

Analyzing the Impact of Local Reforms

While support for ending cash bail had been building for a while, some important steps happened in Cook County under their MacArthur SJC grant. The Cook County’s Office of the Chief Judge issued a general order in 2017, designed to increase pretrial release without cash bail and increase the affordability of cash bail when used as a condition of release. The chief judge received collaborative support and buy-in from other system and community stakeholders to implement these changes.

And, because SJC prioritizes data transparency and analysis, the Office of the Chief Judge shared their data with another MacArthur grantee for analysis: Loyola University of Chicago’s Center for Criminal Justice.

Loyola deserves credit for its efforts to educate journalists, government officials, and the public about how bail reform impacts community safety. Their analysis of bail reform in Cook County since 2017 traced people who had been released pretrial. What they found was invaluable to the debate around bail reform in the Pretrial Fairness Act: they learned that there was no change in the rate at which defendants were charged with new crimes in the six months or year following their release, even though the number of people released during this period increased.

Data showed that bail reform in Cook County had no effect on new criminal activity or crime. This was based on analysis performed by Loyola University Chicago under a grant from MacArthur.

Loyola’s Professors Don Stemen and David Olson concluded that Cook County’s decreased use of cash bail had no impact on new criminal activity or crime. Overall crime rates in Chicago, including violent crime rates, were not any higher after the implementation of bail reform. The analysis and findings in Cook County resembled other areas where similar bail reform efforts have been undertaken, such as New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia.

The analysis also showed that releasing people while they await trial does not make communities less safe. Monetary bail, however, does impose a burden on the individuals and families who are least able to afford it. Like bail reform efforts in other communities, Cook County’s initiative demonstrated that it is possible to decrease the use of monetary bail and pretrial detention–lessening the financial, physical, and psychological harms that come with pretrial detention–without affecting criminal activity or crime rates.

Without Cook County modeling bail reform for the rest of Illinois and Loyola analyzing and sharing the results, Illinois may not have had the support to end cash bail statewide.

Implementing reforms at the local level, analyzing the results, and sharing learnings is at the heart of SJC as we try to encourage the spread of reform across the country. The Pretrial Fairness Act, a first-in-the nation law, took lessons from a local community and used it to inform smart reform decisions at the state level. This shows exactly the type of momentum the Safety and Justice Challenge was designed to push forward, and we know it will have a positive impact on people’s lives, even as there is more work to be done.


Measuring The Success of The First Year of 988

By: Travis Parker

Community Engagement Featured Jurisdictions Interagency Collaboration August 28, 2023

It has now been just over a year since the U.S. government allotted approximately a billion dollars to roll out a new nationwide phone number, 988, to call when people need help with a mental health crisis or behavioral health support. The goal of the initiative is to divert individuals in crisis to community-based services, including stabilization centers, rather than encounter law enforcement.

Over the past year, my organization has run a bimonthly virtual learning community for criminal justice systems around the country to help them with this transition. Twenty-eight sites involved in the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge have attended the meetings focusing on operationalizing the 988 phone lines and associated crisis stabilization centers in their communities.

The mission of the SJC is to lower jail populations in participating communities across the country so the goals of the 988 system are aligned. It is still difficult to empirically measure how many people are staying out of jail because of 988. If someone avoids arrest and is instead diverted to a stabilization center or other community-based service after a 988 call, instead of a 911 call, there is simply no arrest in the public record. Still, the usage of the 988 lines has been promising.

In the first year of implementation, people placed five million calls, chats, and texts to 988 across the country. That’s a 35 percent increase in calls to the federally run suicide prevention line (1-800-273-TALK) it replaced. It includes 665,000 texts, more than a 1,000 percent increase over texts to the old suicide prevention number. By simplifying the process of seeking assistance with a three-digit number, people are more likely to call.

In addition to serving as a Strategic Ally of the Safety and Justice Challenge, I have worked for the past 20 years as a mobile crisis response counselor in Southeast Nebraska. My role has been to assist community members in crisis, whether they are suicidal or homicidal. In the past year, I have seen and heard locally how the 988 number has eased the burden on overstretched law enforcement officers. However, there is now a workforce concern in the behavioral health field. As 988 lines become more successful, communities across America will need to address gaps in the behavioral health system. This is a significant challenge.

Some sites are advanced in their implementation of the 988 number and others are still coming up to speed. More populated states such as California have multiple 988 centers. Others, such as Nebraska, have just one. There are also some concerns about cell tower coordination. For example, if somebody with a Nebraska number calls 988 in California, there is still some concern that their call could route to a center in Nebraska by mistake. That costs time when individuals in crisis face emergencies, but we expect these concerns to be worked out soon.

Meanwhile, three examples of SJC sites and their experiences of implementing the 988 number are as follows:

  • In Harris County, Texas, the first-year rollout has gone well. At first, there was some concern about the line being overwhelmed and the volume did increase significantly in the first few months. The staff have now acclimatized, and the system is proving effective.
  • In Middlesex County, Massachusetts, stakeholders integrated 988 planning into their existing “Roadmap to Behavioral Health Reform” plan. Over 50 city dispatch centers in Middlesex County were previously surveyed—before the implementation of 988—to gather information on their call codes and who is dispatched for mental health-related calls. Findings demonstrated little consistency across these dispatch centers. There are currently five 988 call centers in Massachusetts, which is more than almost any other state and represents a significant investment in 988.
  • In the “Embedding Equity into 988: National Scorecard,” only two states referenced reaching out to older adults. One of those two states is South Dakota. It is noteworthy that only South Dakota and Alaska specified strategies, materials, or efforts to reach older adults through their 988 implementation approaches since older adults are especially vulnerable to suicide or mental health crisis with causes ranging from grief, isolation, to chronic illness. In South Dakota, both Minnehaha and Pennington Counties are part of the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, with the two communities on opposite sides of the state.

Meanwhile, state legislators in more rural areas have shown a lack of knowledge about 988. They will be key allies in securing funding to support ongoing implementation, so it remains important for there to be more conversation and awareness building about the value of 988 as a public safety measure.

While there is clearly a good deal of work remaining across our states and territories until we can consider 988 to be fully implemented, there are positive signs in the first year of 988’s implementation. I expect that together, in the years ahead, we will continue to build on the momentum we have created so far and offer anyone in need of behavioral health supports and/or services an excellent alternative to first dialing 911.

Peer-Support Programs for Domestic Violence in Jail—A Starting Point

By: Katy Maskolunas

Human Toll of Jail Jail Populations Victims Women in Jail August 3, 2023

One in four women experience domestic violence in their lifetime. But three in four women who have been, or are, incarcerated have experienced it. Despite these disparately high rates among incarcerated women, jails too often lack organized domestic violence-specific services for women. Very few jails have programs to address women’s needs related to abuse and trauma. It is time to change that because more research shows providing such services is a good idea. They can help increase the success of reentry services and improve well-being. And that is an important part of efforts to reduce jail populations across the country.

Peer-support groups are the focus of a new report co-authored by survivors. It is a project of the National Center for Victims of Crime with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge. Along with our panel of experts with lived experience, we convened a listening session to discuss how to create domestic violence peer-support groups in jails. The experts from this working group identified five principles to guide the development of domestic violence peer-support groups for women who are incarcerated. This is not an exhaustive list, but a starting point for engagement and implementation in institutions. We are hopeful that communities will want to partner with us to embed these principles.

Principle 1: The jail intake process should screen for whether a woman is a domestic violence survivor.

The intake process for women who are incarcerated should include an assessment to detect past domestic violence victimization, and jails should utilize gender-responsive assessment tools for this. Still, women who are incarcerated may not be ready to fully disclose their histories of domestic violence victimization when they arrive at a facility. Jails, therefore, should offer continuous opportunities for women to disclose information about their past.

Principle 2: Implement comprehensive and easily accessible compensation to peer domestic violence guides for their work. 

It is vital that women serving as domestic violence peer guides are compensated, financially or otherwise, for their service. Women should be compensated regardless of whether they serve as peer guides during or after their incarceration. Furthermore, work as a domestic violence peer guide while incarcerated, at a minimum, should constitute an internship with a partnering domestic violence program and qualify as requisite experience for a paid position with the organization upon release. Building relationships with external domestic violence organizations can also help institutions strengthen their policies around working with women who are survivors of domestic violence.

Principle 3: Supportive partnership and collaboration between peer guides and external domestic violence programs is needed. 

In addition to bringing domestic violence programming into jails, community-based domestic violence providers should train incarcerated victims and survivors to serve as peer guides. Community-based domestic violence programs should hire formerly incarcerated domestic violence survivors to work with domestic violence peer-support groups in jails and ensure that peer-support specialists receive just compensation. This duality of lived experience is necessary for peer guides to fully understand the traumas that have occurred before, during, and even after incarceration, and allows the guides to provide stronger and more relevant support for domestic violence victims who are incarcerated.

Principle 4: Ensure access to holistic care to treat the whole person.

Domestic violence peer-support programs in jails should engage holistically with incarcerated victims and survivors. Trauma is an emotional response to an intense event that threatens or causes harm. It is often the result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds one’s ability to cope with the emotions involved with that experience. Educating incarcerated victims and survivors about trauma can help women realize that they are recovering from a serious stressor and learn more about their own stress responses and coping strategies, allowing them to build a sense of control over those responses. Trauma education can also minimize self-blame and build community among victims and survivors through a better understanding of their shared experiences. 

Principle 5: Correctional officers (CO) who transport women to and oversee domestic violence peer-support groups should be trauma-informed and trained on the dynamics of domestic violence.

The majority of individuals who interface with the criminal justice system, including jails, have been exposed to traumatic events, like domestic violence. However, institutional confinement, like jail, is not intended to house victims and often does not acknowledge or recognize that individuals involved in the criminal justice system are often victims before they committed their offense. Instead, incarceration is another traumatic event. Being locked in a cell is one of the most horrific, stressful experiences a person can endure. The act of locking another human being in a cell is also traumatic and potentially dangerous to the correctional staff. Incarcerated people and correctional staff alike are traumatized, forcing them to react to the world around them from a position of fear, making them more likely to respond with aggression. The trauma shared by staff and people who are incarcerated exists in a constant feedback loop in which no one feels safe.

Given the prevalence of preexisting victimization and ongoing trauma, especially in women who are incarcerated, jails need to embrace a trauma-informed approach and culture. A key part of creating this kind of environment is providing ongoing training to ensure that correctional officers understand the impact and prevalence of trauma and its pervasive effects on the brain and body, as well as the specific dynamics of domestic violence. Doing so can help to break the cycle of trauma for both women who are incarcerated and the staff who work with them.

The report would not have been possible without the expertise of our co-authors, Tanisha Murden and Rylinda Rhodes. We would like to thank them for sharing their knowledge, ideas, and experiences, as well as helping us create a more healing space for all survivors. We hope communities will find the recommendations in the report useful and explore implementing them in their policies. Just because someone is incarcerated does not mean they are not also victims of crime. In the case of domestic violence survivors, often the very actions that resulted in someone’s incarceration could have stemmed from self-defense or another means of escaping an abusive situation. It is incumbent on us, as a society, to support victims of crime in all circumstances.

Understanding and Reframing an Individual’s Failure to Appear in Court

By: Shannon Magnuson

July 31, 2023

Failure to appear in court is often a disproportionate driver of jail populations. It is important to understand it better and to reframe it, as part of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC)—which is reducing jail populations across America.

Justice System Partners (JSP), a technical assistance provider to the Safety and Justice Challenge, recently conducted an in-depth study about why people do not get to court as scheduled in Lake County, Illinois. Leadership there know even one night in jail can be disastrous for some people. It can lead to a host of negative consequences including loss of employment. But they saw bench warrants for missing court were also driving their jail population at a disparate rate. That is why they wanted to know more about why people miss court.

JSP interviewed 50 people, most of whom were in custody for a bench warrant, not a new crime, at the time. The focus of the interviews was about barriers individuals face when trying to get to court as scheduled. The interview also asked about which services or supports might help and if automated court notification systems and virtual court proceedings help people get to court easier.

Some of the key findings and recommendations were:

Acknowledge Major Barriers to Court Appearance 

Participants described three major barriers to getting to court. They were: life responsibilities and challenges; logistical and technical concerns; and past experiences and emotional reactions. Over a third of the people interviewed described navigating more than one major barrier at the time of their court recorded absence. 60 percent of participants described life responsibilities and challenges as a primary barrier to getting to court as scheduled. This includes managing mental health challenges; serving as a primary care giver; working; simultaneously navigating custody and divorce cases; and securing shelter or navigating homelessness. Over a quarter of individuals (28 percent) reported that attending their court hearing would put their basic needs, like food or shelter, at risk.

Reframe the Term “Failure to Appear”

A key takeaway of the report is the importance of reframing the language of the missed court hearing. People are trying to get to court. Individuals described navigating multiple obligations, competing demands, and barriers too challenging to overcome. Some individuals described the need to prioritize basic needs, like food and shelter, over their court obligations. The report recommends shifting the term from “failure to appear” to terms such as “recorded court absence” or “not getting to court as scheduled.”

Use Intermediary Steps to Avoid Cascading Impacts of Bench Warrants

When individuals return to jail from a bench warrant after not getting to court as scheduled, it can have a cascading impact on their life. Courts should consider alternatives to warrants for missing court hearings. For people who do not have the material resources to get to court, the threat of a bench warrant and returning to jail may not be compelling. It is simply not effective. Courts should consider an intermediary step before issuing a bench warrant. This could include strategies that do not prompt an arrest, and instead encourage attendance, such as relying on the notification system or issuing cite-in-lieu or summons.

Help People Meet Court Obligations

We must critically challenge the desire to punish individuals who are often experiencing cumulative disadvantage and navigating poverty. Helping people who repeatedly miss court to meet their court obligations will require a radical shift in traditional case processing. It is time we consider that many individuals navigating the court cannot prioritize court over other personal obligations. Helping individuals with limited resources meet the obligations of their case will require developing policies that treat court as one of many important obligations in their life. It also means investing in better awareness of notification systems. 90 percent of individuals were not aware of either the county’s Public Defender or Pretrial Services court reminder notification systems. Of the people who were not aware of the system, more than 90 percent said they would opt into the system if offered to do so again.

Offer Grace and Flexibility

The rigidity of court rules about tardiness and day-of-attendance penalizes individuals who are willing to get to court but lack the resources to do so. In some cases, the perceived rules related to lateness encourage individuals to reluctantly choose not to come to court. Courts could prioritize an individual’s schedule or, at least, offer more flexibility when scheduling court hearings. Courts could also set up a grace period for tardiness by moving individuals to the end of the docket to give them more time to arrive. Courts could create an overflow docket or “make up” docket at the end of the week for individuals who were unable to attend earlier in the week.

Challenge Perceptions And Norms About In-Person vs. Virtual Hearings

Participants perceived judges as more willing to extend grace to individuals who appear in-person rather than virtually. As a result, individuals risk missing court altogether by trying to prioritize appearing in-person, even though a virtual hearing might have been available and easier to attend. Judges must reckon with the implicit biases they may have for individuals who use virtual court to navigate their case. Courts should reevaluate existing culture prioritizing in-person hearings and propose alternative options which encourage flexibility. Courts should also consider the necessity of attendance and prioritize and minimize the number of hearings an individual must attend.

Reconsider the Goal of the Court

We must reconsider the goal of the court: to enforce attendance or to help people responsibly resolve their case. Courts are effectively asking an already taxed and emotionally drained person to navigate another large, taxing, and emotionally draining system without financial or emotional assistance. The consequence for navigating the system incorrectly is returning to jail, an accelerant to continued and chronic disadvantage.

Enhance Equity

Missing court is rarely a willful event or an attempt to evade justice. Enhancing equity in the pretrial process will require courts to reimagine the process for the population of people who continuously miss court. Importantly, enhancing equity will require courts to critically challenge the desire to punish individuals who are navigating poverty while also navigating their case.

Reducing Frequent Jail Contact to Lower Jail Populations

By: Sarah Desmarais, Samantha Zottola

Data Analysis Frequent Jail Users Jail Populations July 25, 2023

If they go to jail at all, most people in America only do so once. But in communities across the country, there is often a small group of people who account for a large number of jail admissions. They also account for a large portion of total jail expenditures. A new two-year research project sought to better understand this population in three communities and makes policy recommendations from which others can learn. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation funded the study as part of their Safety and Justice Challenge, which seeks to reduce jail populations.

How Did the Researchers Work and What Did They Find?

The study incorporated quantitative and qualitative methods. Researchers drilled into at least eight years’-worth of data from each of three communities to identify and describe the population of people with frequent jail contact. They also conducted interviews with 27 practitioners across a range of service sectors and 23 people with lived experience. Finally, they used both the quantitative and qualitative data to examine the strategies used by each community participating in the study to reduce jail contact.

The research found people with frequent bookings accounted for about one-half of all the bookings that occurred during the study period. Across communities participating in the study, people with frequent jail contact account for a majority of bookings, but account for a minority of the people booked. People of color and people with behavioral health needs are overrepresented. The study’s findings also emphasize complex interrelationships between race and ethnicity, gender, and behavioral health needs. They point to potential disconnects between the perceived and actual characteristics of people with frequent jail contact.

Different communities used different strategies to aid people with frequent jail contact but most did not have strategies intended for that exclusive purpose. Rather, they implemented strategies intended to aid everyone. All participating communities selected diversion strategies for people with behavioral health conditions as their primary intervention for the study’s focus. And the study found that behavioral health diversion strategies may improve outcomes for people with frequent jail contact. More broadly, the study findings underscore the importance of comprehensive community-based resources to support the success of behavioral health diversion programs. Findings also show the need for strategies that cross many systems and levels of policy and practice.

Policy Recommendations

Based upon the study findings, the researchers have nine policy recommendations:

  1. Create a Data Sharing Ecosystem

To meet the complex needs of people with frequent jail contact—especially individuals with behavioral health challenges—criminal legal and behavioral health systems need a common data sharing language and platform. Ideally, the common language and platform would extend to other systems as well, such as social and emergency services.

  1. Establish Formal, Jurisdiction-Specific Definitions

Jurisdictions should develop formal definitions or criteria to support the consistent operationalization and identification of people with frequent jail contact. These definitions should drive the development and implementation of related policies.

  1. Use Validated Behavioral Health Screening Tools

Consistent with the standards for health services in jails and prisons, universal screening using validated screening tools should take place during the intake process at each door into and away from the criminal legal system.

  1. Implement Psychiatric Advanced Directives

Psychiatric advance directives are intended to enable self-determined treatment, and effective and clear communication from a past and competent self, for individuals who are at risk of losing decisional capacity at some point in the future.

  1. Facilitate Jail In-Reach Programs

Trust and engagement are key to successful reentry for people with frequent jail contact. Jail in-reach programs allow practitioners to meet with people in the jail before release, assess their needs when back in the community, develop a plan to meet those needs, identify how community providers can assist, and provide coordinated support as people transition into the community.

  1. Increase Peer Support Programs

Peer support programs should be a key feature of policies designed to reduce frequent jail contact. While the focus is typically on lived experience with behavioral health systems, people with lived experience of the criminal legal system, specifically, share a common understanding of the challenges and resources necessary for successful reentry.

  1. Improve Access to Housing

Affordable housing is scarce in most communities. Providing safe, sustainable, and supportive housing for people involved in the criminal legal system with behavioral health conditions can be a challenge, but it is critical to reducing frequent jail contact.

  1. Increase Utilization of Community-Based Services

When possible, people should be given the necessary supports in navigating the continuum of care. In addition to warm handoffs from one service provider or program to another, other examples include a shared video chat with a new provider or engaging peer support services during transitions.

  1. Center and Evaluate Efforts for Racial Equity 

Evaluations suggest that efforts to reduce frequent jail contact have had limited success in improving racial equity in this population, likely due to multiple, intersecting factors. Communities should work to mitigate systemic racism through the operations of their criminal legal and behavioral health services for people with frequent jail contact and examine the success of these efforts through formal evaluations.