This story is part of Reframing Crime Narratives, a 10-part series about public safety by The TRiiBE to create space for community conversation about crime in Chicago

The series is supported in part by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Envisioning Justice grant by Illinois Humanities.

It’s close to a year since the Pretrial Fairness Act went into effect in Illinois on Sept. 18, 2023. If you recall, crime was the central issue in the 2022 Illinois Midterm Election cycle, and the Pretrial Fairness Act, which was a part of the Safe-T Act, was center stage in the debate. As a refresher, the Pretrial Fairness Act abolished the use of cash bail and made pretrial release the norm. 

Proponents of the Pretrial Fairness Act claimed eliminating cash bail would not lead to more crime and would prevent people from being locked up because they couldn’t afford their freedom. Opponents told everyone that the crime portal to hell was supposed to open up and personally usher in “the Purge” to consume Chicago. 

So, who got it right? 

Data emerging from the Circuit Court of Cook County shows that the law is working. Since implementation, about 88% of people have returned to their scheduled court dates while on pretrial release, regardless of what crime they have been accused of — and 88% of people have not committed a new crime since they have been on pretrial release. All the while, crime has actually gone down in Chicago this year compared to 2023. For all the fear-mongering about what was to come, it appears that advocates and organizers supporting the Pretrial Fairness Act were right.

But there is a deeper issue than just right or wrong here; it’s that we need to stop letting fear dictate our public safety policy. If we want to be serious about solving our public safety issues, we need to endorse solutions that embrace change and avoid repeating the same mistakes of the past. 

For anyone paying close enough attention, it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise that the Pretrial Fairness Act would work. Before the law even passed, Cook County courts had already begun moving away from using cash bail back in 2017. Data from back then showed that people were largely returning to court, not being accused of new offenses, and that crime wasn’t impacted by not relying on cash bail. This alone should have ended any debate about what was to come with the law. But it didn’t.

Instead, the conversations and debates around the Pretrial Fairness Act centered around fear. Fear that the law would empower people to commit crimes in the future, like Richard Irvin said during his 2022 run for Illinois governor. Fear that police would flee the state and leave no one to stop crime, like Brett Nicklaus said while he was running for senator in the 37th District. Fear that crime from Chicago would begin to spread to white suburbs, like Benjamin Marcum said during his 2023 candidacy for Aurora City Council. Fear had such a strong hold on people that some even claimed that the law was already making people commit crimes even though it hadn’t been implemented yet, like Darren Bailey said during his 2022 candidacy for Illinois governor.

This fear, of course, was not neutral. It was the fear of the other, rooted in racism. The controversial newspaper Chicago City Wire ran countless stories about the coming perils of the law, accompanied by Black mugshots. Darren Bailey, who was a governor candidate in 2022, ran campaign ads showing a white woman getting robbed in Lakeview by what appeared to be two Black assailants as evidence of the new norm that would accompany the Pretrial Fairness Act.

Various headlines by Chicago City Wire spread confusion around the effectiveness of the SAFE-T Act. Graphic by Ash Lane for The TRiiBE®

Critics of the Pretrial Fairness Act proposed solving these fears by holding onto the cash bail system and continuing down the same known path: giving more money to police and locking more people up.  Historically, this approach had resulted in the over-policing and caging of poor Black folx. In Cook County Jail alone, 75% of the population is Black despite only being 23% of the county’s population. When you combine data for both Black and brown folx, they make up 91% of the Cook County jail population.

The thing about falling back on these types of solutions is that they don’t require people to grapple with the actual realities of creating safety because the problem is left for someone else to deal with. We’ve always chosen that “someone” to be the police in hopes that we can incarcerate our problems away. But whatever one may think about the feasibility of policing and jails, it is clear that being comfortable with doing what has always been done is a burden that disproportionately punishes people of color.  

Just as we need to avoid repeating past mistakes, the success of the Pretrial Fairness Act thus far shows us that we need not fear the unknown when thinking about public safety policy. Had organizers, advocates, and activists not dared to imagine a completely new system, we would be stuck with the same failures of the past. Instead, our embrace of change has paved the way for new horizons. 

In Cook County, our daily jail population is down 12%. The population under electronic monitoring has decreased by 17%. The percentage of people in Sheriff’s custody has dropped by 13%.  For clarity, Sheriff’s custody is the combination of the jail population and those under electronic monitoring. 

While pretrial release is the norm, people are sometimes held behind bars. In those cases, 82% of the time, the Cook County State’s Attorney has not filed for detention. This means that even when people are held, most go home after their conditions hearing. That number jumps to 98% when the case involves a misdemeanor. All of this to say, the law is showing us that we can be safe without depending on incarceration. 

The thing about embracing newness is that mistakes will undoubtedly be made. If that happens, it doesn’t mean things are failing. It likely indicates a site for improvement. Getting things right takes time, especially in the context of public safety policy. We should, nevertheless, be open to a wide range of improvements instead of the same stale racist options. 

Likewise, our policy debates on safety should begin to shift towards how and where we can invest resources to solve the root issues of crime. Now that we can see there is less of a need to spend money on jails, we should begin to invest in things like schools, housing access, public transportation access, park districts, mental health services, and guaranteed income programs. At the very least, we should be willing to discuss how these might impact public safety policy. With a dwindling jail population, it seems we might even have some new sources of revenue for investment. Go figure. 

Ultimately, the past couple of months have shown us possibilities. We can have safety without incarceration. Accountability without cages. What we can’t do and don’t have to do is lead with fear in continuing to perpetrate the same harmful mistakes of the past.  Whether you’re from Up North, Over East, Out South (the best side of course), or Out West, the past year shows us that we can hope, imagine, and act on something different that hasn’t been done before— public safety not based on fear. 

is a Research Assistant Professor of Law, Race Place, & Equity Fellow at the University of Virgnia School of Law, and a Chicago native.