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The Illinois legislature must decide whether to end cash bail

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) – One of Illinois’ most sweeping — and controversial — criminal justice statutes is set to be cleaned up again after it was both revered and vilified during the fall election campaign. This is the last chance for lawmakers to finalize details before much of the package goes into effect on January 1.

When lawmakers return to Springfield next week, discussions of the SAFE-T Act will focus on a key provision ending bail — the long-standing process that ensures defendants return to court if they are released before trial. Advocates say poor people are stuck in jail awaiting trial because they can’t post bail, but wealthy defendants can pay their way to pre-trial release.

There will likely be more changes to the massive proposal, as has happened twice since lawmakers approved it in January 2021. But one negotiator, Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, did not say which issues would be specifically attacked.

“There were some red herrings thrown into the campaign room. A lot of those things weren’t true,” Peoria’s deputy majority leader said. “But there are some parts we need to add to add additional reinforcing and clarifying language to the original intent of the bill.”

Proponents say bail is a poverty penalty, allowing those with enough money to pay their way to freedom before trial while those with fewer resources are left in a cell.

During the gubernatorial race — won by Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker — losing challenger Darren Bailey, a Republican senator, pledged to repeal the law, claiming that ending bail means a “revolving door” for statewide jails.

However, proponents counter that judges retain discretionary powers. Not all will be released pending trial. A judge might decide that a suspect poses too great a risk, or the suspect’s crime and background warrant imprisonment.

The section of the law that ends bail begins Jan. 1. Legislative changes made after July 1 and intended to come into force immediately must be approved by a three-fifths majority. While Democrats have sufficient numbers in both houses to succeed, beating the votes is a different story.

Various legislators see parts of the law that give them food for thought. Rep. La Shawn Ford, for example, fears problems could arise from a change that allows police to confront intruders with a misdemeanor ticket instead of arresting them. In other words, if you call the police because someone is on your property without permission and you call the police, the police may issue a ticket but will not remove the violator.

“If they’re not welcome, they shouldn’t be left on public or private property,” said Ford, a Chicago Democrat. “Because what happened? You’ll see the homeowner take matters into his own hands. You will see people killing people. They’ll say, ‘Don’t even call the police.’”

The SAFE-T Act, part of the landmark “four pillars” of change brought about by the Legislative Black Caucus, was met with suspicion and praise. New legislation – inspired by the May 2020 killing of George Floyd – spurred conspiracy theories about the Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID-19 pandemic. Passing the bill through the House of Representatives in the early hours of the morning at the end of a lame session did nothing to add to its credibility.

Proponents of police accountability measures backed the regulation, which would also require all officers to wear body cameras by 2025 to protect the public and themselves.

Shawn Mulcahy of the Illinois Prison Project, which works on clemency petitions, proposes reducing the number of people being unnecessarily incarcerated and representing those who are being released to be reincarcerated, welcoming the body camera provision and other accountability measures. The non-profit organization is campaigning to change the Three Strikes Act by raising the minimum age for a person convicted of a crime to 21; The 20-year-old “Three Strikes” law provides for life imprisonment for those accused of three crimes.

Improved and centralized data on deaths in prisons and jails statewide will help the John Howard Association keep tabs on incarceration conditions and the well-being of inmates, said executive director Jennifer Vollen-Katz. And she advocates the amended system of mandatory supervised release – known colloquially as probation – which puts resources on par with supervision. She said it will also reduce the time former inmates would have to spend on supervised release.

Gordon-Booth is not surprised that the law has continued to be debated, re-evaluated and amended for almost two years since it was passed.

“This is an indication of what happens with any major reform legislation … You always have to come back and make these tweaks and make these changes,” Gordon-Booth said. “But we also need to gather some information and start working with people because these systems don’t work like a light switch.”


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