Issues & Ideas

Loyola Center for Criminal Justice emerges as key resource on cash bail

By Jamie Traynor

Two Loyola University Chicago professors stand under Chicago's elevated train tracks

Loyola University Chicago’s Center for Criminal Justice (CCJ) has become a key resource in a national debate around a controversial topic: cash bail.

In 2021, the Illinois General Assembly passed House Bill 3653, an omnibus crime bill known as the SAFE-T Act. A section of this new law includes a series of reforms called the Pretrial Fairness Act, or PFA, which according to the CCJ, “abolishes cash bail, prohibits pretrial detention for most defendants, creates new pretrial hearing processes, curtails the conditions that may be placed on defendants released pretrial, and limits revocation of pretrial release.” Some of the arguments made during the passing of the PFA were rooted in the CCJ’s research examining the effect of cash bail reforms implemented in Cook County.

“Our research showed that you can release people from jail without making them pay money with no impact on public safety,” says CCJ codirector, Don Stemen. The new Illinois law garnered attention from media organizations, politicians, and activist groups from around the country, turning the issue of cash bail into a polarized debate with implications for social justice and public safety. While the PFA’s proponents argue that the law ensures no one is jailed pretrial simply because they can’t afford to post bond, others argue these reforms limit local courts’ ability to detain dangerous defendants or impose meaningful pretrial release conditions to ensure public safety. Amid all the noise, the CCJ emerged as a voice of reason backed by empirical evidence.

“People don’t really know what happens under the money bail system,” Stemen says. “We’ve found that most people are usually released from jail before their trial. Money bail just makes people, or more often their families, pay money before they can leave and it doesn’t contribute to public safety. The difference is, with the PFA and similar reforms, people don’t have to collectively put up tens of millions to be released, and this money can stay in their communities. This especially impacts people and communities of color.” The debate, then, according to those who examine and analyze the effect of cash bail reform, is rooted in quite a bit of fearmongering.

“We’ve seen people attributing the rise in gun violence in Chicago in 2022 to the PFA, even though the law was passed in 2021 but [didn’t go into effect] until 2023,” Stemen says. “We’ve also seen people say that the rise in gun violence is only happening in Chicago, when in fact, the increase is being seen in cities across the country where they haven’t passed or discussed any cash bail reform at all.” Since Illinois passed the SAFE-T Act, the CCJ has responded with a new research project that will track the effects of the PFA across Illinois over the next four years. Specifically, the CCJ will examine how the law impacts the likelihood of pretrial release, pretrial supervision, and jail populations.

“Money bail just makes people, or more often their families, pay money before they can leave and it doesn’t contribute to public safety.”

— Don Stemen , Director, Loyola University Chicago Center for Criminal Justice

 

“The College of Arts and Sciences is extremely proud of the critical research being conducted by the faculty and staff in the Center for Criminal Justice Research,” says Peter J. Schraeder, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Loyola University Chicago. “Their objective and data-driven work is being used to inform the public conversation and decision-making on a local, state and national level.”

Since the political debate on cash bail emerged in Illinois and spread throughout the country, Olson and Stemen have been cited by news sources including Axios, The Atlantic, Politifact, CBS News, National Public Radio, Chicago Sun Times, the Chicago Tribune, and more. But Olson and Stemen have no interest in the political ire that the topic has drawn. “There are certain disciplines like criminal justice where the goal of your research is to have a direct impact on people’s lives,” CCJ’s codirector David Olson explains. “But we’re not policy advocates, and we’re not elected officials. Like any scholar in the social sciences, our role and responsibility is to provide practitioners and policymakers with good, solid, objective, and empirical information and theoretically-driven, applied research to guide better, more humane, more fair, and more just policies and practice.

We know that this topic is very nuanced, and we just want to provide objective, unbiased research and analysis that captures what’s currently happening in the system and helps inform the conversation.” Informing the conversation is something that Olson and Stemen take seriously.  “We are intentionally sharing our research and analysis given the statewide breadth of this policy. That’s not something we normally do,” Stemen says, going on to explain that the CCJ typically only regularly shares its preliminary findings via individual presentations with stakeholders like specific government agencies and policymakers for whom the research is being performed.

“Our philosophy has changed. Our government partners are wider now, and this is a statewide policy. Why not share that information widely? The research is examining a significant public policy, and everyone should have access to the research findings.”  In response to the demand for timely information, the CCJ has overhauled its practices to share their findings in a quicker, clearer, and more intentional way to help the center grow. “We usually create very long, dense reports, but we realized we needed to get something out that’s more digestible and accessible to everybody,” Olson explains. Patrick Griffin, Deputy Director of Policy and Communications at the CCJ recommended shorter, more digestible reports that answer one simple, specific question to make the information more useful and shareable.

One such manifestation of this new philosophy is the CCJ’s new website, built by Branden DuPont, Deputy Director of Analytics at the CCJ, that features briefer reports and interactive data charts and tables. But this routine information sharing and greater attention and scrutiny comes with greater responsibility. “We run our analyses and findings by people we trust and who know policy and practice to get a gut check on whether we’re using the right, appropriate language and terminology,” says Olson. Despite the political debate and journalistic fervor, the CCJ and its codirectors can’t help but be grateful for the coverage and attention their work is receiving. “If the work we do leads to better outcomes for the people involved in the criminal justice system, if people take in our information and find it useful, we find that incredibly fulfilling,” said Stemen.