BELLEVILLE, Illinois — Illinois courts ushered in a new era without cash bail on Monday.
In St. Clair County, the chief judge ordered staff to convert one courtroom into a space for detention hearings.
News cameras were not allowed inside as defendants filed in to appear virtually over a Zoom video conference call from a holding cell in the county jail across town.
Some of them were dressed in orange or mustard yellow jumpsuits. Others were still in their street clothes. Most of them wanted to know how much longer they'd be in jail, or when they might be released to meet their lawyer, return to their families, or get back to their places of employment.
One woman, who had been arrested and charged previously, asked the judge, "Do I have a bond?"
"There is no bond," Judge Sara Rice said.
Rice will oversee up to three different initial appearance hearings each day as police bring new defendants before the court. Separately, Rice will also hear arguments from the St. Clair County state's attorney prosecutors as they seek to keep certain defendants detained until their trial.
Eventually, every defendant that comes before the court will fall under the new law; however, during the transition period, several suspects accused of crimes may bring a complicated set of circumstances with them. One such case presented itself on Monday morning when a woman had an outstanding warrant for a violent felony but was brought in on a lesser charge.
“Now this gets weird because this gets into a weird area," St. Clair County public defender Cathy MacElroy said in court. "The new case isn’t detainable.”
Judge Rice muted her microphone on the video call and asked, "What am I telling this gal right now?"
The judge continued discussing the issue with an assistant state's attorney and the defense.
"In theory, she could be released on the old bond," the clerk said, noting that she was also on probation.
"All due respect," the defendant chimed in, "I have a probation officer I can go see."
"Technically, you're going to be released on those new charges," the judge told the woman. "But until a new hearing can be scheduled, you will be detained."
In total, the first round of initial appearance court hearings lasted about an hour on the fourth floor of the St. Clair County courthouse. As they moved quickly down the docket, the clerk stopped to check the new forms, and asked, "Do these things indicate that they're to be released anywhere?"
The first day of preliminary hearings was merely a preview of the heavier lifting that begins on Tuesday when the sheriff's deputies will transport defendants to the court to appear at their detention hearings in person and defense attorneys will help them make their case to go home.
One estimate from the public defender indicated about 30% of the current jail population could be released within the next week.
"When we went through who was in custody and what they were charged with, it appears that there was going to be approximately 150 people that are eligible for release," MacElroy said. "And when I say eligible, I mean they are charged with non-detainable offenses."
During a lull in the court proceedings, MacElroy said she expects the state "is not seeking to detain" about 150 people. An assistant state's attorney clarified they were "people we can't seek to detain" under the new law.
Towards the end of the hearing, an investigative officer from the Fairview Heights Police Department came in carrying a manila folder.
"I have an 'out-of-custody' drug case," he told the judge. "I guess I'm the first person, so I'm testing things out."
The suspect in the case had not been detained yet.
"Before this, we'd get a bond, so now I imagine it will just go into the system?" he asked.
"We're all learning, I guess."
Then, he asked Judge Rice, "Were you always in felonies?"
"No, first day," she said.
Later, the judge said she was working in traffic court a week-and-a-half ago.
"She's got a public defender's background," Chief Judge Andrew Gleeson of the 20th Judicial Circuit of the State of Illinois said. "She's bright. She's perfect to grow into this role."
Republican lawmakers repeated their concerns that the roll out of the new law could backfire.
"Illinois begins its ill-advised experiment and it becomes the first state in the nation to completely eliminate cash bail in exchange for a system that promises to be more fair," Sen. Terri Bryant (R-Murphysboro) said in a prepared video statement. "But fair for who? Because it's certainly not fair for our county court systems."
Bryant, who used to work for the state prison system, argued that removing cash bail from the criminal justice system would come with a cost to taxpayers if county boards elect to raise taxes to offset the loss of bond payments.
"Defunding our courts, limiting victim services, and making law abiding citizens pay for criminals bail with their taxes is just not justice," she claimed.
Senate Republican staffers pointed to a Civic Federation task force report that found Illinois county clerks collected a combined $10,248,189 in fees from bond payments in 2021. An additional 28,008,893 in fees collected from bond payments in 2021 were disbursed to various other local government programs, including sheriff's departments, probation offices, prosecutors, specialty courts, and child advocacy programs, according to the report.
The Pre-Trial Fairness Act also provided $10 million in new funding to assist public defenders as they prepare to take on this work and provided counties with access to a state-run electronic monitoring program at no cost to their county budgets. The new law also provided body camera funds for local police departments, pay raises for prosecutors, and state-funded electronic monitoring services at no cost to county coffers.
A representative at the St. Clair County State's Attorney's Office said the prosecutor and his staff would not be commenting or answering any questions about the implementation of the new law.
Judges and public defenders said much of the political rhetoric criticizing the new changes has been overblown.
"There wasn't a massive jailbreak, and people don't have to be afraid," MacElroy said. "All this really does is it guarantees due process for people to make sure they get in front of a judge, and a judge decides if they should be held or released. This doesn't mean that everybody's getting out or that people should be afraid that there are going to be violent criminals roaming the streets of Illinois."