UPDATE: This original story has been updated to include comments by IL. House Speaker, Emanuel ‘Chris’ Welch on the SAFE-T Act legislation, and its affects on communities of color and the impoverished.
SPRINGFIELD | The Illinois General Assembly finished its first week of the fall veto session without taking measures to the SAFE-T Act, known as the Pretrial Fairness Act, which will abolish cash bail effective January 1st, 2023.
The Safety, Accountability, Fairness, and Equity-Today Act, or the SAFE-T Act, a massive reform package, was introduced by the Illinois Black Caucus as part of Black legislators’ response to the murder of George Floyd, and was passed by the Illinois Senate and House of Representatives on Jan. 13, 2021. Gov. JB Pritzker signed the bill into law on Feb. 22, 2021.
“We must leverage this moment in time to undo these damaging policies and procedures that are built into our state’s system of law and government that have created these deep inequities and opportunity gaps,”SENATOR KIMBERLY LIGHTFORD, MAJORITY LEADER, IL BLACK CAUCUS, PRESIDENT (D-MAYWOOD)
The Act stipulates that someone who is arrested after Jan. 1 may be released prior to their trial, based on the assumption of innocence guaranteed under the United States Constitution, replacing it with a system that gives judicial authority to detain those accused of certain crimes while they await trial. Crimes that include non-probationable forcible felonies – such as murder, arson, and residential burglary, in addition to stalking, domestic violence, and sexual assault guarantee the revocation of pretrial release; meaning, the accused will not be released after arrest.
Persons deemed to be “planning or attempting to intentionally evade prosecution” may also be detained pretrial under the “willful flight” standard if they’ve been charged with a crime greater than a Class 4 felony – such as property crimes, aggravated DUI, and driving on a revoked license.
The law’s standards regarding when a judge can order pretrial detention was among the most hotly contested provisions in the run-up to the November elections.
Repealing the SAFE-T Act is something that new House Minority Leader-elect Tony McCombie (R-Savanna, IL) said remains the preferred path of her caucus.
Senate Minority Leader-elect John Curran (R-Downers Grove, IL), lamented in an interview with Capitol News Illinois that his caucus has been “frozen out” of negotiations on the SAFE-T Act’s cash bail provisions.
“So the Democrats decided to go it alone on this issue two years ago… they placated the extremes of their base. And what they got was an extreme product that has caused nothing but divisiveness in this state over the last two years on the issues of balancing civil liberties and public safety,” Curran said in a recent statement.
Eliminating cash bail is an important step in eliminating inequities and racial disparities in our system that has kept some people behind bars, while others have been able to buy their freedom.IL HOUSE SPEAKER, EMANUEL ‘CHRIS’ WELCH
Advocates say the cash bail system disproportionately impacts black and brown communities and other underrepresented or impoverished groups who can’t afford to post bail, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, an independent bi-partisan agency established by the U.S. Congress in 1957. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, on November 17, 2022, released the report, Contemporary Civil Rights Challenges: A View from the State Advisory Committees. The report examines the work of the Commission’s 56 Advisory Committees, capturing data on persistent civil rights issues; identifying emerging ones; and capturing how perspectives differ across the United States. The survey results showed the most important civil rights topic to be race, followed by the administration of justice.
Illinois House Speaker, Emanuel ‘Chris’ Welch, (D-Hillside), said in an interview with The Chicago Reporter, “”When we passed the SAFE-T Act nearly 2 years ago, we did it with the desire to make our criminal justice system more fair because we know it disproportionately harms people of color and low-income communities.”
Speaker Welch added, “Eliminating cash bail is an important step in eliminating inequities and racial disparities in our system that has kept some people behind bars, while others have been able to buy their freedom. By reforming the bail system, Illinois is now doing what the federal government has done for decades and joins most countries across the world who do not allow people to buy their way out of jail simply because they have access to cash.”
Senate Majority Leader, and IL Black Caucus, Chair, Kimberly Lightford, (D-Maywood, IL), said racial disparities and social injustice in the wrongful deaths of Black Americans – such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain at the hands of police, was the catalyst that increased the public and political will to enact change.
“We must leverage this moment in time to undo these damaging policies and procedures that are built into our state’s system of law and government that have created these deep inequities and opportunity gaps,” Lightford said in a statement.
The passage of the SAFE-T Act is a win for advocates pushing criminal justice reform at a time when public outcry has pleaded for such changes following the killings of Black and brown people by police officers nationwide.
As written, the SAFE-T Act law creates a presumption in favor of pretrial release for lower-level offenders, including most charged with misdemeanors and low-level, non-violent felonies such as possession of small amounts of drugs. Officers would be instructed to release those individuals with a citation and a notice to appear in court within 21 days, but they would still hold the authority to arrest the individual and take them into custody if they deem them to be a threat to the public safety.
L. Nicole Trottie is The Chicago Reporter, Publisher, award winning investigative journalist, social justice advocate and writer, and former executive board member of the Illinois Press Association.