One of Illinois' most comprehensive — and contentious — pieces of criminal justice legislation is scheduled for another cleanup, after it was both venerated and vilified during the fall election campaign. This is legislators' last chance to finalize details before major parts of the package take effect Jan. 1.
When lawmakers return to Springfield next week, at the center of discussions about the SAFE-T Act will be a key provision for ending cash bail — the longstanding process that ensures that defendants return to court if they’re set free before trial. Advocates say poor people have to sit in jail awaiting trial because they can’t make bail but affluent defendants can pay their way to pretrial release.
There likely will be other tweaks to the massive proposal, as there have been twice since lawmakers approved it in January 2021. But a lead negotiator, Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, hasn't said which issues, specifically, will be targeted.
“There were some red-herring issues that were interjected into the campaign space. Many of those things were not true,” said the deputy majority leader from Peoria. “But there are some pieces that we need to add an additional strengthening and clarifying language of the original intent of the bill.”
Advocates say that bail is a penalty on poverty, allowing those with sufficient money to pay their way to freedom prior to trial while those with fewer resources sit it out in a cell.
During the governor's race — which Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker won — the losing challenger Darren Bailey, a Republican state senator, vowed to repeal the law and claimed that ending cash bail meant a “revolving door” for jails statewide.
But advocates counter that judges retain discretion. Not everyone will be released pending trial. A judge could decide a suspect poses too great a risk or the crime and defendant's background justify detention.
The section of the law ending bail begins Jan. 1. Legislative changes made after July 1 intended to take effect immediately must be approved by three-fifth majorities. While Democrats have sufficient numbers in both chambers to succeed, whipping the votes is another story.
Various lawmakers see parts of the law that give them pause. Rep. La Shawn Ford, for example, fears problems could arise from a change that allows police to confront trespassers with a misdemeanor ticket instead of arrest. In other words, if you call the police because someone's on your property without permission and you call the police, the police might hand out a ticket but not remove the violator.
“If they’re not welcome, then they should not be left on public property, or private property,” said Ford, a Chicago Democrat. “Because what happens? You’ll see the homeowner taking matters into their own hands. You'll see people killing people. They'll say, ‘Don’t even call the police.'"
The SAFE-T Act, part of a groundbreaking “four pillars” of change brought about by the Legislative Black Caucus, was met with suspicion as well as praise. New legislation — inspired by the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 — spurred conspiracy theories about the Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID-19 pandemic. The House's adoption of the law in the early morning hours at the end of a lame-duck session didn't help its credibility.
Supporters of police accountability measures approved of the provision, which would also require all officers to wear body cameras by 2025 to protect members of the public as well as themselves.
Shawn Mulcahy of the Illinois Prison Project, which works on clemency petitions, proposes to reduce the number of people needlessly incarcerated and represents those released to get reestablished, applauded the body-cam provision and other accountability measures. The nonprofit organization advocates for changing the three-strikes law by raising the minimum age to 21 for a person convicted of a felony; the 20-year-old “three strikes” law requires sentencing defendants to life in prison after three felonies.
Improved and centralized data on deaths in jails and prisons statewide will help the John Howard Association keep tabs on the conditions of lockups and the well-being of the incarcerated, executive director Jennifer Vollen-Katz said. And she approves of the changed system of mandatory supervised release — known colloquially as parole — which puts resources on par with supervision. She said it'll also reduce the time that former inmates must spend on supervised release.
That the law has continued to be discussed, reassessed and changed over nearly two years since its approval is no surprise to Gordon-Booth.
“This is indicative of what happens with any major reform legislation .... You always have to come back and make those tweaks and make those changes,” Gordon-Booth said. “But we’re also going to have to do some information gathering as well and begin to work with folks because these systems do not work like a light switch."
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