S1 E6: Will Tanzman on ending cash bail in Illinois, how Chicago organizers built a statewide coalition & spent two years defending a legislative win
January 10, 2023
Will Tanzman is executive director of The People’s Lobby, where he’s been an organizer since 2008. During his time there The People’s Lobby’s has successfully raised the minimum wage in a number of Cook County suburbs from $8.25 to $13 and led a campaign of mass actions and civil disobedience that played a role in the closure of $125 million in corporate tax loopholes in Illinois. Will grew up in Chicago and began organizing as a high school student in the Chicago Public Schools, where he started an organization of students across the state working for a more just education system, successfully changing citywide standardized testing policies and practices.
The Campaign to Become the First State to End Money Bail
Pending a last-minute
some time this year, Illinois will become the first state to eliminate wealth-based pretrial incarceration. Right-wing operatives spent tens of millions of dollars to keep this historic legislative victory — won by a statewide coalition in January 2021 — from going into effect. The path to passing the legislation and then defending it from attacks holds lessons for organizers attempting to turn smaller, municipal-level reforms into large-scale victories that can change the lives of tens of thousands of people.
The Illinois campaign began coalescing in 2016 as different strands of organizing against money bail and pretrial incarceration that had begun in the previous few years came together in the Coalition to End Money Bond. For community organizing group The People’s Lobby, the effort started with a listening project on how policing and criminalization impacted Black people in Chicago. Pretrial incarceration was a persistent theme of the listening project conversations. Many of the group’s members expressed anger at the status quo: over 60% of the county jail’s detainees were incarcerated solely because they couldn’t afford bail. The organization began researching the issue, interviewing defense attorneys, attending court hearings, and learning about the arbitrariness of the hearings themselves. As The People’s Lobby’s executive director Will Tanzman told me, “No evidence is presented. The prosecutor says, ‘This person is accused of X, Y, and Z,’ and the defense attorney says one sentence about the person having a job or a family. And then the judge says, ‘Okay, bail set at $50,000.’ And that’s it.”
In power-mapping the issue, The People’s Lobby noted that Cook County’s State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez was one of the key defenders of the money bail system and that she was running for reelection in the city’s May 2016 primary. Alongside other groups like National Nurses United and Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, The People’s Lobby decided to back Alvarez’s challenger, former local prosecutor Kim Foxx. Another key organization, Assata’s Daughters, played a key role in making criticism of Alvarez go viral with their #ByeAnita anti-endorsement campaign. That May, Foxx won.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Community Bond Fund had begun in 2015 and soon began playing a key role in anchoring the campaign. The bond fund was started to bail out protesters arrested demanding justice for Laquan MacDonald, who was murdered by the police, but organizers soon realized they could repurpose it as part of the campaign to end money bail. They started using the bond fund to bail out people facing pretrial detention and publicized their stories to put pressure on elected officials and judges. The new bond campaign coalition — anchored by the Chicago Community Bond Fund, The People’s Lobby, Chicago Appleseed, the Illinois Justice Project, and Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation — planned to channel the anger on the streets into a campaign that could dramatically lower the number of people locked up.
Money Bond Campaign members decided to target Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans, who they believed had the most power to influence the use of cash bail, given that he supervised judges at the county’s criminal courts. To build public support around the issue beyond the publicity generated by their bailouts, the coalition organized teach-ins, meetings with elected officials, and direct actions targeting Judge Evans, one of which involved shutting down the county’s central court building for hours. “Actually, the two times we got meetings with the chief judge, both involved people engaging in civil disobedience,” recounted Tanzman. The meetings allowed the coalition to better assess him as a target but did not immediately result in him agreeing to their demands. That wasn’t the goal: the coalition planned to use Evans to, as Tanzman told me, “draw attention to the issue and more indirectly push the legislature to act.”
But Evans ended up taking action. In the summer of 2017, he issued an order recommending that all of the county’s judges implement new rules limiting cash bail to what defendants could reasonably afford, which reduced its use by 50% over the next year. The coalition also partnered with a law firm that was suing the county on the grounds that wealth-based incarceration was unconstitutional. Organizers believe the lawsuit weighed on Evans’s decision, as did his desire to be on the right side of a changing political landscape. As Tanzman put it: “we were doing direct actions on him at a moment when the 2016 state’s attorney’s election had changed the politics around [bail].”
Following the order, the coalition trained dozens of new volunteers to monitor its implementation. They observed that many judges were ignoring Evans’s order and still issuing unaffordable bail amounts or using loopholes that left many cases up to the judge’s individual discretion. The coalition decided they would need mandatory rules that took away carceral tools from judges, such as eliminating all forms of money bail instead of retaining money bail as an option for “exceptional cases.” And rather than continue to focus on improving bail in the state’s largest county, they decided to reach for a statewide victory that would take money bail away from the discretion of individual judges.
The organizers attempted a legislative pathway but soon decided to focus on other options. Earlier in 2017, The People’s Lobby had drafted a bill banning wealth-based pretrial incarceration, which did not make much progress in the legislature. They turned their attention to the State Supreme Court, which coalition leaders believed could issue binding, statewide rules changes. But building power outside Cook County would require them to engage new coalition partners in smaller cities and suburban districts.
They drew on a network of groups that had started during the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests, activists who organized bail-out actions in different cities and towns, faith-based organizations, and other advocacy groups to launch a statewide coalition. In 2019, they kicked off their statewide campaign with a convening in the state capital, Springfield, with 160 participants from eleven counties. They also tapped into the energy of progressive groups, like local Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign chapters that had continued to mobilize beyond the election. In addition to teach-ins and lobby days, the coalition used public bailout actions to educate the public on the issue.
The new coalition successfully pressured the State Supreme Court to hold public hearings on pretrial detention, and over the course of 2018 and 2019 lined up former prosecutors, judges and elected officials to lobby court leaders. But the court’s response essentially “punted” any solution to the legislature, as Tanzman put it. It was time for the coalition to shift focus again, this time to crafting and winning support for a state law to end money bail. They refined the original 2017 proposal, renaming it the Pretrial Fairness Act, and lined up co-sponsors for the bill across legislative districts where they anticipated progressive electoral strategies would fall flat.
According to Tanzman, “Our broader power analysis of the state was that we could get a majority of legislative votes if we could move beyond the traditional progressive base in the city of Chicago, which included some inter-ring suburbs. We kind of figured we needed to add some swing areas in the further out suburbs that were up for grabs between Democrats and Republicans, places like DuPage County that were increasingly multiracial and economically diverse suburbs as well as some key smaller cities in towns like Rockford, Bloomington, Champagne, Peoria and East St. Louis.”
Coalition organizers knew that to get the legislative co-sponsorship needed to win they would have to recruit unlikely organizational partners, like domestic violence advocates, who didn’t come from an abolitionist or decarceration lineage, which would test their unity. “It really required a lot of trust-building between these folks that wanted to ‘shut shit down in the streets’ and the folks who were down to lobby their legislators in the suburbs and the folks who were the policy experts. And some of it was just a lot of time spent in rooms together hashing stuff so that we could recognize that not everybody had to use abolitionist language but that the bill that we were pushing had an abolitionist orientation,” said Tanzman.
“There was a lot of time spent hashing out, ‘well, if we make this change in order to bring in the domestic violence advocates and people that were advocating policies that would benefit survivors of sexual violence, what would that mean for us and how could different parts of the coalition talk about this work that we were doing in ways that were true to slightly different political orientations but still pulling in the same direction?’”
As some coalition partners focused on expanding their active participants to include more groups ready to take action on the issue, others spent time mapping the “inside game” of Democratic Party leaders within state legislative caucuses and committees. “When our first bill sponsor moved into a position in the governor’s administration in the house, the person that we asked to be our next sponsor was intentionally the chair of the State House criminal law committee, Rep. Justin Slaughter, as we were working to build support within key committees and key caucuses, like the progressive caucus, the Black caucus,” said Tanzman.
And then in January 2020, only months after the statewide coalition’s launch, Governor J.B. Pritzker – who had supported ending cash bail statewide in his 2018 campaign, but then took no action on it during his first year in office – announced his intent to help end cash bail, prompting the group to shift into high gear, attempting to win over enough legislative co-sponsors to push the bill through during that session. “Honestly, I think our opposition underestimated us until Pritzker said that ending money bail was his top legislative priority for that year. At that point law enforcement started pushing back hard,” according to Tanzman. The State’s Attorneys Association, among others, began lobbying the same Democratic legislators the coalition was now targeting to earn the legislative votes necessary to pass the bill.
But it wasn’t until after the murder of George Floyd, inspiring tens of thousands to march in Chicago and around the state, that the coalition was able to sufficiently expand legislative support for their bill “using the tailwind of the uprisings,” as Tanzman put it, generating over 13,000 emails to state lawmakers from their constituents that summer. The People’s Lobby’s former political director, Senator Robert Peters, played a key role in pushing the bill across the finish line. He had represented The People’s Lobby in the coalition for several years before being appointed to the Illinois Senate in 2019, elected in early 2020, and then named chair of the Senate Black Caucus later in 2020. He played a key role in pushing for the inclusion of the Pretrial Fairness Act in a package of criminal legal system reforms the Caucus proposed.
In January 2021, both legislative chambers voted on the proposal to make Illinois the first state to end cash bail. The hearing preceding the vote lasted late into the night. Tanzman recalls, “I remember going to sleep at one point and thinking, ‘Man, I don’t see this happening.’ I woke up at five in the morning, restless, and there’s 300 text messages. Our bill got voted on in the middle of the night.”
When we spoke in October 2022 Tanzman reflected on the winding path from the organization’s 2014 listening sessions to the early morning vote in 2021, noting that “all of the different pieces came together in a way we could not have possibly predicted back then.” But with the legislation not scheduled to take effect until 2023, after they won the vote, coalition members knew the fight wasn’t over; right-wing lobbyists were already beginning to telegraph their intent to force another vote rolling back the law’s implementation. “As it was passing, we were already starting to realize that we were going to have to do much more intense defense. And so we kept the coalition going. We didn’t miss a meeting.”
The group gamed out how their opposition in law enforcement and local prosecutors might team up with Republican lobbyists to keep the legislation from going into effect. “We had a set of strategic conversations between core coalition partners to think through the five or six elements of defense and implementation, from being part of the rule-making and implementation process to defending vulnerable legislators who voted for the bill in the next election to much broader public education so the people knew what was in the bill to winning the public narrative battle to come.”
As they expected, in 2022 wealthy Republicans funded a multimillion-dollar misinformation campaign attempting to use the Pretrial Fairness Act to sink many State House Democrats’ reelection hopes. And in November sixty-two prosecutors filed suit to block the Act’s implementation.
Some of the opposition’s tactics made national news. “They had a whole two-page spread in this fake newspaper that got mailed to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people just showing mugshots of mostly Black and Brown men who they say would be released under bail reform. They had a TV commercial that was Ring camera footage that had been doctored, that showed a white woman walking down the street and attacked by three Black men. And she screams, and it’s just this like ten-second scream. Apparently the scream was added to the footage.”
But unlike in New York, where misinformation in part targeting the state’s bail reform law led to unexpected Democratic losses, Illinois Democrats won every statewide race and retained supermajority legislative control.
Still, coalition organizers were unable to stop some changes to the original law from going through. Just four weeks before the legislation was scheduled to take effect, the State Senate — responding primarily to the concerns of conservative Democrats — passed revisions to the Pretrial Fairness Act. But bail reform defenders, in addition to letting through provisions giving prosecutors slightly more leeway to designate a defendant as ineligible for bond, won even stronger protections for those detained pretrial, like the right to a hearing within 48 hours.
Now in 2023, the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice has embarked on the next stage of the campaign: monitoring the Act’s implementation in courtrooms across the state’s 102 counties. As part of that effort the group is recruiting additional volunteers to participate in court-watching programs in seven counties.