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What is the issue about cash bail?In the Illinois prison system alone, there are over 250,000 people incarcerated every year. 90% of that population is incarcerated pre-trial. This means that they are in prison even before they have even had a chance to plead their case. A significant majority of this 90% is incarcerated because they cannot afford the cash bail that has been placed on them. Essentially, the prison system in the state of Illinois has become a debtor’s prison, because people who according to our system of law are presumed innocent until proven and convicted guilty, are being held due to an outstanding debt, rather than as the result of a conviction.
Why is this issue so important right now?Prior to Governor Pritzker’s Stay-At-Home mandate, legislation to end the cash bail system had been proposed in the Illinois State Senate. With the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, however, most non-COVID related legislation has been postponed. However, because prisons in our state face unique and incredibly difficult challenges for public health, the virus is far likelier to spread within their confines, drastically raising the prospect of a pandemic within the prison system. This campaign is advocating for the conditional release of those in prison because of a cash bail they cannot afford, especially if they are at a high risk for COVID-19. We are also advocating for more and better resources to contend with the spread of the virus within prisons, including access to more tests, and more treatment resources.
What does this have to do with Passover?The campaign is called Let Our People Go as a reference to the famous line Moses utters to the Pharaoh of Egypt about the Israelite people who had been toiling in slavery under his rule. The Passover story commemorates the Israelites’ struggle to be free from slavery, and of course celebrates their eventual victory. As a Jewish community, it is our imperative to use this story of freedom as a motivation to work for the freedom of any other community still struggling in captivity. The Passover seder reminds us every year that we know too well the feeling of being enslaved and oppressed, and that knowledge informs the work we can do to help other communities be free as well.
Isn’t this possibly dangerous?Studies have shown that pre-trial incarceration actually increases the likelihood of recidivism, meaning that the person currently incarcerated is likely to be arrested again, because the imprisonment significantly hampers that person’s ability to either maintain or find employment, keep or find housing, and contribute to their community and family. It also increases the likelihood that the person will accept a plea bargain for a felony charge, which will limit even further their housing, job, and family prospects. In addition, the significant majority of those held in pre-trial incarceration are for non-violent offenses, meaning that the threat they pose to a community is already very low. In Cook County, the amount of people incarcerated pre-trial has reduced 40%, coinciding with a significant drop in major crimes. Upon doing away with cash bail, the state of New Jersey saw a major reduction in crime. In terms of the spread of COVID-19, the sooner we get already overcrowded places de-crowded, the less likely the virus is to spread. Decarceration is in fact a public health benefit.
What can I do right now to help?You can contact the mayors of both Champaign and Urbana, along with the Champaign County Sheriff, our State’s Attorney, and our district’s Circuit Judge to demand that they release those awaiting trial from our county prisons, and increase the resources the prisons have to test for and treat COVID-19
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