“We’re building the plane as we fly it,” say some criminal justice reformers. Not everyone is convinced.

Photo by Mike Cox on Unsplash

In a groundbreaking move aimed at reshaping the state’s criminal justice landscape, Illinois Governor JB Pritzker signed into law the Illinois Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today (SAFE-T) Act in 2021.

After surviving several legal and political challenges, the SAFE-T Act is swiftly become the law of the land in 2023.

The comprehensive legislation, which is now being rolled out in phases, introduces far-reaching reforms encompassing pre-arrest diversion, policing practices, pretrial procedures, sentencing protocols, and corrections.

The SAFE-T Act’s multifaceted measures are poised to enact a paradigm shift across various dimensions of the criminal justice system, addressing issues of accountability, fairness, and equity. The implementation of these reforms will be overseen by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (ICJIA), tasked with orchestrating various components of the Act concerning policing, pretrial proceedings, and deaths occurring in custody.

As usual, some are in favor of the measure while others aren’t convinced of its efficacy.

“A coalition of 426 organizations and individuals filed a document with the Illinois Supreme Court arguing that the elimination of cash bail will make communities safer,” reported Shannon Heffernan for WBEZ on March 13, 2023. “That coalition includes victim rights groups like the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence. They point to studies that show when reliance on cash bail was reduced in Cook County, there was no statistical effect on crime.”

“They write that when people are unable to pay bail, they ‘often lose their jobs, housing, health care, family and social ties, and potentially custody of their children,’” continued Heffernan. “And when people’s lives are destabilized, that makes communities less safe.”

Chicago’s new Mayor, Brandon Johnson, echoes that sentiment. Others are vocally opposed, including Mayor Johnson’s main challenger in the recent race.

“It does not appear that the Cook County courts are equipped for the enormity of the task required in the exercise of discretion to require bail or deny release,” wrote Paul Vallas for the Chicago Tribune on July 26, 2023. “Currently, it takes judges just minutes to hear information that is available about defendants, depending on the case. With the SAFE-T Act and its requirements, hearings will take much longer.”

“If we want to make the SAFE-T Act a measure that ensures fairness while keeping communities safe, which certainly everyone across the city wants, city and state officials must do three things,” Vallas proposed.

“Restore cash bail for some cases,” he advised. “Legislatively calibrate it to the offense so that it can be denied to serious and habitual offenders. This should also include anyone who attacks a police officer and those who threaten or contact witnesses or victims.”

“Create a ‘truth in sentencing’ law that requires serious and repeat offenders to serve out their full sentences and brings the state system into alignment with the federal system,” Vallas begged. “The system must hold accountable people who re-offend.”

“Provide courts with the infrastructure and resources needed to make fully informed, fact-based bond determinations,” wrote Vallas. “That means a properly resourced pretrial office doing full background workups and making objective, reasoned recommendations to the judge. The latter is what the federal courts have. Federal courts do not have a bail system; defendants are routinely held pending trial and not sent home when their offense and their backgrounds reveal they are a threat to the community.”

“The city could enact a public nuisance ordinance that would empower police to make arrests, impound vehicles, confiscate personal property and impose heavy fines on individuals and organizations found guilty of violating the public way, damaging property, and harassing or threatening city residents,” Vallas mused. “A city public safety ordinance could provide jail time and include fines and terms of probation for individuals who threaten police, intimidate witnesses, engage in hate crimes, commit weapons violations and perpetrate carjackings, among other offenses. Violations could be prosecuted by the city’s Law Department.”

“Effective criminal justice reform is a work in progress,” Vallas concluded. “Statutes must be amended and policies adopted with the goal of increasing public safety without sacrificing the basic tenets of reform such as stopping defendants charged with minor offenses from languishing in jail because they can’t afford bail.”

“Our jails must not be debtor’s prisons, and wealth should not be a proxy for assessing risk to public safety or flight risk,” he implored. “A balance can be struck between avoiding incarceration for minor first-time offenses while requiring detention for suspects charged with dangerous offenses and habitual offenders.”

Vallas is hardly alone in challenging the new law.

“On July 18, 2023, the Illinois Supreme Court issued its opinion overturning the Circuit Court and found the pre-trial fairness act constitutional,” said State’s Attorney Jaqueline Lacy in a statement. “To say I am disappointed is an understatement. I firmly believe that this decision will be a detriment to the criminal justice system and the People of Vermillion County.”

“First, the act will limit the ability of Judges to protect the public and victims as well as to ensure the offender will appear in court,” Lacy pointed out. “Second, the legislature has now been given the power to change the Illinois Constitution without putting forth a referendum to the voters of the State of Illinois. Third, requiring an unwarranted additional presumption of no bail clearly contradicts previously established and superior law, places crime victims at a greater risk to be re-victimized, and unnecessarily subjects witnesses to threats and intimidation.”

While its detractors are in full-throated opposition, supporters of criminal justice reform measures like the SAFE-T Act say the measures need a longer trial.

“Many advocates say the new policy simply needs more time to prove itself, even if they also acknowledge that parts of the ballot measure had flaws,” reported The Atlantic last month.

“‘We’re building the plane as we fly it,” one homeless services supervisor was quoted by The Atlantic. “‘We tried the War on Drugs for 50 years, and it didn’t work…It hurts my heart every time someone says we need to repeal this before we even give it a chance.’”

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)