Jim Dey | Bennett, Rietz playing key roles in SAFE-T debate | Columns – News-Gazette


State Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign, is the man of the hour.

But which hour is it — the one before or after the Nov. 8 election?

Last week, Gov. J.B. Pritzker dragged Bennett into the statewide spotlight when he suggested during a debate with his GOP opponent that it is “very important” to consider Bennett’s proposed amendment to the controversial SAFE-T criminal/social justice bill.

“He’s really, I think, written a pretty good bill, the provisions of which we should go through and decide which are appropriate,” Pritzker said.

Really? Which provisions require change? The governor, despite repeated inquiries, won’t say.

Why not? Because politics always trumps policy in Illinois. After Pritzker wins his expected re-election in November, he’ll turn his attention to the bond-abolition aspects of the law that take effect Jan. 1.

Meanwhile, Bennett is in the crosshairs of both supporters and opponents of his lengthy legislative amendment. Protesters have picketed his office and supporters of the law have blasted him in print.

The Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice has charged — incorrectly — that Bennett’s bill would “cause the number of people jailed while awaiting trial to skyrocket and exacerbate racial disparities in Illinois jails.”

Actually, no more people would be held in the future than are now, and probably fewer. Bennett’s bill would require those charged with Class B and C misdemeanors and traffic violations to be issued citations to appear in court, not taken to jail.

But that falsehood is typical of the ongoing debate over the law for at least two reasons:

  • Few outsiders understand how the criminal-justice system works.
  • Partisans on both sides are exaggerating the law’s impact as Election Day approaches.

In the meantime, Rietz said she is among a group of prosecutors who are holding Zoom meetings “twice a week, two hours at a time” to iron out problems law enforcement perceives in the legislation.

She said her group worked with Bennett on his amendment, offering “suggestions” to address their public-safety concerns.

While Rietz & Co. are working on legislation, another group of state’s attorneys have filed lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the entire 700-plus-page law that was passed at lightning speed in early 2021. The multiple lawsuits are expected to be consolidated and litigated in a single county, but nothing has been scheduled.

The SAFE-T Act was sponsored by the Legislative Black Caucus and designed to, among many other things, clear the way for the release of Black inmates currently held in county jails on bonds they cannot pay.

But critics have charged that the law is much too lenient because it would allow many inmates charged with serious crimes to be released. In fact, one key change Bennett has proposed is to apply the new law to inmates charged on or after Jan. 1, not before.

The law’s supporters contend no inmates who pose a public-safety threat would be released. At the same time, they have lent support to that notion by complaining that, if the legislation is not made retroactive, “tens of thousands” of inmates will be “stranded” in county jails as of Jan. 1.

The correct number is probably closer to “hundreds” than “thousands.” But mass releases are expected Jan. 1 if the law is not changed.

Rietz has estimated that “roughly” 25 percent of Champaign County jail inmates would be eligible for release.

Rietz said she’s optimistic that prosecutors and legislators will be able to agree on compromise language that addresses public-safety concerns.

“We’ve had so many legislators and the governor say there are fixes that need to take place,” she said, while noting that it’s the same legislators who passed the original bill who will have the final say on changing it.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-393-8251.

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October 11, 2022 at 05:58PM

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