Katie Schulder-Battis is a Chicago Reporter contributor and graduate student at Northwestern University. This content is made possible through partnership with the Graduate Science Journalism Medill School Northwestern University and the Chicago Reporter.
Formerly incarcerated women are leading a grassroots movement to reform the criminal justice system in Chicago and beyond. Since 1980, the number of incarcerated women in the U.S. has increased by more than 700%. In Cook County, 75% of incarcerated women are Black.
Activists are mobilizing to draw attention to discrimination on all levels of the criminal justice system as Illinois’s landmark Pretrial Fairness Act continues to sit in legal limbo.
“I think the [Pretrial Fairness] act is one of the greatest achievements and efforts of organizing out of Illinois and Chicago,” said Monica Cosby, a Chicago-based activist and leader of Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration. Moms United organizes mutual aid support for mothers facing incarceration, and seeks to reduce the number of women in the prison system.
The Pretrial Fairness Act would reduce the numbers by eliminating cash bail for those charged with non-violent crimes. But a Kankakee circuit court judge ruled the Pretrial Fairness Act unconstitutional just days before it was scheduled to take effect on January 1, postponing the watershed act that would make Illinois the first state to abolish cash bail.
The case, appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, is awaiting action there on whether the legislature is infringing on court administration with action on cash bail.
Pretrial incarceration nationally held more than 445,000 people behind bars in 2022—without a single conviction. Jails across the U.S. currently hold nearly half a million people whose cases haven’t gone to trial yet—often resulting in loss of employment, loss of housing and loss of custodial rights. This disproportionately impacts Black defendants, whose median bond amounts are an average of $10,000 higher than for white defendants, according to a Prison Policy Initiative report using Bureau of Justice statistics.
The policy changes would enable parents to retain custody of their children and allow individuals who are awaiting trial for many nonviolent crimes to continue to work.
“I’m a mother and a grandmother,” said Cosby. “We have a lot of very real caretaking responsibilities.”
Women and their families would benefit significantly from these policy changes. Two-thirds of women who cannot meet bail conditions are mothers of children under 18 years old, and 80% of women in jail are mothers, according to a Prison Policy Initiative study,
Tiheba Bain is one of three leaders of Women Against Mass Incarceration, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the rights of women across the U.S. whose lives have been impacted by the criminal justice system.
“People are afraid to get involved in the system,” said Bain. “We perish for lack of knowledge.”
Bain wants to change that. W.A.M.I. organizes community workshops that cover a wide variety of topics, including participatory defense, a legal defense approach that empowers defendants and community members to directly participate in the criminal justice system, and court watching, in which volunteers are trained to observe court proceedings and report problematic legal practices.
“We give people basic legal training and we also want them to know their rights. And we want them to know the procedure of what to do when they’re talking to an officer, even for something as simple as a traffic violation.”
Bain’s advocacy work began when she was still in prison, serving 13 years for a violent offense. She noticed that many women returned to prison shortly after their sentences ended, and became concerned by the volume of high rates of reentry that she had witnessed.
“I created a full paper survey and put them in each building on the compound. I wanted to know, what was happening out in the world that makes people want to come back to prison?”
Bain’s survey revealed that many factors make the transition from prison difficult for individuals with convictions, resulting in the high recidivism rate in Illinois, which has been estimated at 89%.
Barriers that prevent successful reentry, especially for women with families, include a lack of support finding affordable housing, employment discrimination against applicants with criminal records, and countless sources of stress and anxiety that are triggered by the pressure to adapt to a world that has changed during imprisonment.
“You can’t jump back into life because you don’t know what life is anymore—your life has been stopped,” said Bain. “The world [in prison] is moving slowly and the world outside is moving extremely fast.”
After analyzing her survey results, Bain began to envision a solution involving transitional programs designed to support women prior to and during their transition out of prison. By providing women with access to resources and guidance, she believes that previous inmates will have a more opportunities to succeed.
“We need to stop differentiating so much between violent and nonviolent crimes, in terms of what is available to them,” said Monica Cosby, who served 20 years in prison for a violent conviction before emerging as a vocal advocate for women who have faced abuse within the system. “What we need to focus on is what’s happening within the system.”
In Illinois prisons, 98% of women reported having experienced physical abuse prior to incarceration, according to a 2010 study. When women defend themselves against their abusers, they are often charged with violent crimes, meaning that they are punished with longer sentences.
“We’re traumatized from all kinds of domestic violence, mental wellness issues and addictions,” said Cosby. “And when we leave the system, we don’t get any support.”
Cosby believes that the criminal justice system needs to take inmates who are serving longer sentences into account when considering reform options.
“In terms of passing legislation, it is people with violent crimes that are cut out,” said Cosby, who served 20 years in prison for a violent conviction. Cosby, like Bain, is a Soros Justice Fellow, and has been a vocal advocate for policy reform on all levels of incarceration.
“What we need to do is focus on the violence of the system,” said Cosby. “In terms of the system, long-timers like myself are actually the least likely people to return to prison on a new case or a technical violation.”
Although the rates of recidivism and reentry into the criminal justice system are lowest for individuals convicted of violent crimes (and 30%-50% lower for individuals convicted of violent offenses than for criminals convicted of larceny or vehicle theft), these individuals nearly always face the most barriers to reentry.
Cosby believes that policy reforms must apply to all incarcerated people—regardless of the length of their sentence.
“Long-timers don’t get to apply to participate in some of the programming that gets offered in some prisons,” she said. “And it creates this kind of division.”
In order to create meaningful change, Cosby believes that women who have personally experienced incarceration must use their voices to lead advocacy efforts. Her organization empowers these women to share their personal experiences and shape the conversation around criminal justice reform.
“Research is being done, but for us, it’s our lived experiences,” said Cosby. “It’s a real community—it’s the relationships that I’ve built and the meals that I cooked.”