Illinois set a historic U.S. precedent on Sept. 18, when it became the first state to abolish cash bail.
Cash bail, or the practice of imprisoning people accused of crimes before their trial unless they can pay a certain amount of money set by a judge, has a pernicious history. In the United States, cash bail has led to high rates of pretrial incarceration. Consider these statistics: There are more than 400,000 people in the United States who have been incarcerated without a trial. In Illinois, the problem has been especially sobering, with the Center for Criminal Justice of Loyola University Chicago reporting that in 2020 and 2021, 173,000 people were held in jail before a trial.
Local organizations such as the Chicago Community Bond Fund have worked against this system, advocating for policies that would eradicate the practice of setting a bond while simultaneously raising money to help people pay their bail. The Coalition to End Money Bond, whose members include Christian organizations like A Just Harvest, Nehemiah Trinity Rising, and the Chicago Metropolitan Association of the Illinois Conference of the United Church of Christ, pushed for the passing of the Pretrial Fairness Act, the legislation responsible for eliminating cash bail.
In her 2003 classic Are Prisons Obsolete?, Black radical intellectual Angela Y. Davis insisted that the “most immediate question today is how to prevent the further expansion of prison populations and how to bring as many imprisoned women and men as possible into what prisoners call ‘the free world.’” For Davis and those prisoners, the free world is the world outside the prison system, a world where a person’s dignity is not constrained by a criminal justice system that keeps you imprisoned so long as you don’t have enough money. This makes Davis’s question as important today as it was when she asked it then, especially in the United States, where rates of incarceration are still high and people remain in jail because they cannot afford bail.
But the free world is as much a theological invocation as it is a political one. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus stepped into the synagogue to announce that he had come to set captives free and to bring liberation (Luke 4). Often, Christians read into Jesus’s message a spiritual liberation that has little to do with material and political conditions, but the Latin American liberation theologian and martyr Ignacio Ellacuría pushes back against this theology. In his 1989 essay On Liberation, he suggests God’s liberation entails liberation from collective sin and for life with others and God. For Ellacuría, God works for a freedom that is interpersonal and open to transcendence. Practically, this means that God’s freedom is incompatible with the reality of incarceration, since jails and prisons are an institution that separates people from their communities. This is why I view the passing of the end of cash bail as a witness to God’s will for the world. Its tangible consequences — that more people will be free because they will not need to pay bond to leave jail — reflects the radical politics of Jesus’s ministry in which God’s salvation touches upon and transforms the present.
Christian tradition has always borne witness to liberation from systems of oppression. In the 19th century, the devout Christian William Still worked as a clerk for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society to connect fugitive slaves to a vast network of abolitionists who held radical commitments to fighting against any institution that would keep people enslaved. This abolitionist Christianity sought to create a truly free world: A world where unjust material and political constraints are eliminated so that people can flourish. In Still’s society, this meant the end of slavery. In our society, this means the end of mass incarceration.
In fact, Still’s strategy in fighting for the end of chattel slavery is similar to the strategy that organizations like the Chicago Community Bond Fund used in fighting to eradicate cash bail. Just as the Chicago Community Bond Fund both raised money to help pay the bail of incarcerated people while fighting at the policy level to eradicate cash bail, Still worked for an organization that both collected money to help purchase the freedom of enslaved people while advocating for the total end of the institution of chattel slavery.
In a generous but also critical review of Tommie Shelby’s The Idea of Prison Abolition, Vincent Lloyd suggests that part of what is evil about the prison system is its power to reduce the depth of human life to a singular crime. Prison “abstracts,” Lloyd writes, “it identifies a person with one criminal act, equates that act with a price in months or years of a life, and literally substitutes the name of a person for a number once that person is confined to a cage. Such a process of abstraction unleashes the worst human instincts; the more an incarcerated individual is treated as an abstraction, the more a guard’s will to dominate runs wild.” How can a system that reduces people to their crime fit within the Jewish and Christian traditions which insist that human life is made in the image of God, endowed with a value that makes them infinitely more than their worst sin? It cannot.
The abolition of cash bail in Illinois is a major victory that bears witness to God’s will for a free world. Of course, many Christians have yet to realize this abolitionist core at the heart of their faith. Though Jesus does often speak in metaphor, we should be hesitant to approach Jesus’ message of freedom metaphorically. What abolitionists help us to consider is the daring claim that when Jesus announced the release of the captives, he actually meant it.