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Travis DeNeal: End of cash bail wasn't designed with Saline County in mind

By Travis DeNeal, editor
Harrisburg Register and Eldorado Journal
updated: 1/27/2021 10:06 PM

Unless there is a legislative change in the next couple of years, Illinois will be the first state to implement a no-cash-bail law.

There are some valid points behind the law, but in traditional Springfield fashion the law was passed during the state's legislative lame duck session with little thought to the impact on some counties.

Saline County happens to be one of those counties, and the trickle-down effect it may have may be disastrous to the county's finances.

I understand the principal of the law: that oftentimes, people who are arrested can't afford bail. That means they're going to be in jail for a while, even if they eventually get to trial and are found innocent.

Plus, in this country we still are innocent until proven guilty. There are many studies that show juries are more likely to convict when the arrestee arrives to court in a jail uniform and shackles.

While I don't want to take away a person's right to a fair trial, though, I have to remember that there's a reason for an arrest in the first place.

Despite the perception by some members of the public that all police officers are cracking down on crime with an overabundance of zeal, that's truly not the case.

That brings me back to Saline County's particular dilemma. The Saline County Law Enforcement and Detention Center, better known as the county jail, stays pretty full most of the time. One of the reasons is, the jail is large enough to house quite a few people while they await trial. Quite a few neighboring counties have either small jail holding areas or no jail at all. They pay Saline County to house people arrested in their counties.

Saline County has been facing a declining economy for some time, which has a direct impact on the county's financial situation. By working to gain more contracts with surrounding counties to house detainees, Saline County Sheriff James "Whipper" Johnson has been able to minimize some of the effects the county's poor economy has had. When I interviewed him recently, he said the county made about $352,000 last year by housing a combination of out-of-county detainees along with those held for the federal government.

County board member Wes Sherrod said in the wake of the no-cash-bail law, he's concerned that starting in 2023, no cash bail will translate into no out-of-county prisoners, meaning a significant revenue stream for the county may be lost. He's already working on reaching possible agreements with counties in neighboring states like Indiana.

There are some exceptions to the new law. According to a story by Capitol News Illinois, they include forcible felonies like first-degree murder, sexual assault, arson and any other felony involving the use or threat of physical force; stalking and aggravated stalking where the defendant poses a threat to the victim if released; abuse or battery of a family member where their release poses a danger to that family member; gun crimes where the defendant poses a threat to a specific, identifiable person; and cases where the defendant has committed a felony that wouldn't otherwise result in detention but they are considered a high risk of fleeing prosecution and missing their court date.

But, as Sheriff Johnson told me, there's a good chance the guy he catches breaking into a car will be back out in the streets looking for his next payday in short order once the new law comes into effect.

If the state of Illinois can push this through the legislature in two days, perhaps they can work out how to keep it from impacting the safety and financial security of its citizens in two years.

I'm doubtful.