Eye On Illinois: SAFE-T Act proponents fighting uphill battle on messaging

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Reader D.M. is one of many with questions about the Illinois Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today Act. Passed in January 2021, many provisions will take effect in 2023.

D.M. mentioned concern the law “will change some significant ways in which law enforcement can handle trespassing in homes or businesses.”

Challenges explaining and implementing the SAFE-T Act connect to issues plaguing the justice system at large. Chiefly, with regard to pretrial detention, is that we’ve long ago abandoned practical application of the Sixth Amendment’s right to “a speedy and public trial.” Even supporters of ending cash bail blush at the law’s requirements for detention hearings within 48 hours of arrests.

That’s a remarkably small window to review evidence. Video is one thing, provided prosecutors can obtain footage, but crime lab work is a taller hurdle. Like many states, Illinois has struggled to keep up with DNA evidence, and it’s easy to suggest state’s attorneys will find difficulty juggling detention hearings amid ongoing obligations.

Scott T. Holland

Scott T. Holland

Furthermore, as with many aspects of Illinois government, criminal statues are confusing to non-lawyers. While an immediate issue for those charged with crimes, that reality also makes it much easier for people who do understand the law to bend reality to fit personal goals.

Criminal offenses are divided between misdemeanors and felonies, then further divided into subclasses. These tiered systems establish minimum and maximum penalties, while prosecutors have latitude in deciding which charges to press. In many circumstances, a person can be accused of a combination of offenses, all of which factors into detention decisions, during arrest and while awaiting trial.

Regarding trespassing, the new law stipulates police officers can only issue citations for class B or C misdemeanors, and cannot physically detain someone. While some trespassing offenses are class B misdemeanors, others (such as to vehicles, cropland, livestock buildings, safe school zones and state property) are class A.

In August, the Illinois Supreme Court Implementation Task Force issued guidance suggesting officers “have discretion to remove [a] person from the location of the alleged criminal activity, and then cite and release the person from another location.”

Consider other class A misdemeanors an officer might suspect a trespasser of committing: reckless conduct, endangering the life or health of a child or obstructing, fleeing or attempting to elude a peace officer. Maybe lawmakers could discuss reclassifying all trespass offenses as Class A.

Situations get murkier when crimes escalate, exponentially so with weapons involved. Most hypothetical scenarios informing SAFE-T Act debates understate the complexity of criminal arrests and the influence of prosecutorial discretion.

The court of public opinion generally disfavors criminal suspects, and reform advocates aren’t winning the messaging battle. But the crusade for a more just system will surely continue.

Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.

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September 17, 2022 at 05:12AM

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