‘No Bail’ Imperils Domestic Violence Victims

Robin Little’s 8-month old baby grew up without his mother.

She was a teenager in a small town outside Pittsburgh, PA, whose nude body was found in a vacant lot near her apartment. The nineteen year old was raped and fatally stabbed by her husband, Wayne Mitchell, Jr.

This was about 20 years ago. I wrote an op-ed article for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in which I decried her senseless death as the lack of “real protection for abused women.”

I noted that Little was killed a few hours after Mitchell was released from jail, where he was sent after being arrested for raping and assaulting Little. He was released the next morning on his own recognizance, a precursor of “no bail.” He went back and killed her.

When I read that Illinois became the first state this week to completely eliminate cash bail, I thought of Little for the first time in years. I also thought of her devastated mother and her son.

Little, who was African-American, died because of a different kind of plague.

Society did not begin to make serious efforts to protect women who were victims of domestic violence until the 1970s. Historically, it was legal because it was deemed a husband’s right. A private matter.The first domestic violence shelter was opened in Great Britain in 1971. Police routinely told abusers to take a walk around the block and cool off.

As a child, I recall the shocking sight of a young red-haired wife of a prison guard peeking out from behind the lace curtains of her home with a bruised and battered face.

Intimate partner abuse is characterized by power and control. Many victims endure years of isolation and abuse. Many stay because they have children and no other options. If and when they finally do leave, it is common for them to refuse to testify against the abuser because they are (and may have every reason to be) terrified of him.

Risk to Community

How is “no bail” going to work for victims of domestic violence?

After the no bail law goes into effect in January 2023, Illinois judges will be presented with evidence to determine what kind of risk releasing a defendant poses to the community and whether the defendant can be counted on to return to court. A judge will then determine if the person should be held in detention until trial. This process seems fraught with uncertainty.

Clearly there are abuses with respect to the bail model, especially when poor people are forced to remain in detention for many months because they cannot raise funds for bail. But is ‘no bail’ the answer? It seems foolhardy and dangerous to turn Illinois police stations and courts into a revolving door, especially for victims of intimate partner abuse.

About 120,000 thousand residents of Illinois signed a petition opposing the new legislation because they said it would make communities less safe.

The New York Times interviewed Jim Kaitschuk, executive director of the Illinois Sheriff’s Association, who said jails are filled with people suffering from mental health disorders and addiction. He said they may be released into the community without access to mental health or drug counseling and “be a risk to themselves or others.”

Pritzker said the no-bail legislation brings the state closer to “true safety, true fairness and true justice.” But it doesn’t seem fair to people like Robin Little and it certainly doesn’t make their situation safer. Domestic violence victims face serious risk of injury and death when an abuser is set free without receiving help or facing any consequences.

One can never know what would have happened if Pittsburgh authorities had not released Mitchell on his own recognizance just a few hours after he had raped and assaulted his wife. The only thing we do know is that releasing Mitchell led to the brutal death of the 19-year-old mother of his 8-month old child. That is unacceptable any way you look at it. Even today.

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