CHICAGO — Critics say the current system of pre-trial bail and bond payments is unfair. People who can’t afford it are locked up until trial, while the wealthy are released because they can afford to pay a bondsman. While dozens of states like New York, New Jersey and Alaska have overhauled their bails systems, this year, Illinois became the first state in the nation to abolish the requirement of cash bonds completely.
A single mother of two, Lavette Mayes had never been to jail before.
“Every time I went to court, my kids wasn't sure whether I would be coming back. And so, it was just a lot,” said Mayes.
After a 2015 altercation landed her in court, she couldn’t afford to pay the 10 percent of her $250,000 bond. She was stuck in jail until her trial.
“I was incarcerated for 571 days," she said.
Across the U.S., Black and brown people are finding themselves trapped in pre-trial limbo that advocates say punishes the poor with greater severity.
According to the prison policy initiative, “over 555,000 people are locked up who haven’t even been convicted or sentenced.” It goes on to say, “many are detained in local jails because they cannot afford to pay the bail amount…”
While in jail, Mayes, who was incarcerated for a year and a half while legally presumed innocent, lost her job and business, housing and nearly, the custody of her two children.
“I couldn't put them through that for another year and a half,” she said. “So, it's not because I don't think I could beat the case, I took the plea to sacrifice myself or my family.”
She ended up pleading guilty to get out.
“We know that if somebody does not have the money and they're stuck in jail, they are more likely to plead guilty and they're more likely to serve a longer sentence than someone charged with a similar offense,” said Sharone Mitchell Jr., director of the Illinois Justice Project, a member organization of the Coalition to End Money Bond.
“It's really perverting justice,” he says. “So, we're hoping to get the system back on track.”
After years of lobbying, the Illinois state legislature passed the Pretrial Fairness Act in January with bipartisan support. The law will end the requirement of money bonds statewide.
“This is something that has really reverberated across the country and it's been a long struggle in many jurisdictions,” said Mitchell. “So, we believe that there will be other states that will be doing this soon.”
Dozens of states have overhauled their cash bail systems and the District of Columbia ended cash bail in the ’90s.
Mayes eventually resolved her aggravated battery case after her release. She was sentenced to one day in prison, with credit for the 571 days she had already served.
She has since become a staunch advocate for criminal justice reform.
“We have to change as America. More states need to do this. They need to look at how this is hurting their communities," she said.