ACLU: Pretrial Fairness Act needs reform, not complete overhaul

Rep. Justin Slaughter, D-Chicago, gets upset over the Republican response to a follow-up bill to the Safe-T Act on Saturday April 9, 2022.[Thomas J. Turney/The State Journal-Register]

During a Wednesday evening forum regarding misinformation and truth surrounding the Pretrial Fairness Act, the ACLU of Illinois called for reform – not a complete overhaul – of the provision which ends cash bail in Illinois.

The forum comes as lawmakers and state’s attorneys from both parties are also calling for change either through trailer bills, lawsuits, or legislation that would fully repeal the Safety, Accountability, Fairness, and Equity-Today Act – commonly known as the SAFE-T Act – of which the PFA is a provision.

More:Indepth: There’s more than no cash bail in Illinois’ pretrial detention system overhaul

Ben Ruddell, criminal justice attorney at the ACLU of Illinois, said reform attempts regarding the PFA will likely come during next month’s veto session in the Illinois General Assembly. The last two years of conversations among Illinois Supreme Court working groups revealed that further change is needed, he said, mainly in terms of clarifying language.

“This is a big piece of legislation that has a lot of moving parts to it,” Ruddell said during the forum at the Lincoln Library. “Like any big and complicated piece of legislation, there are going to need to be some adjustments made to implement it correctly.”

Specifically, he said language regarding the act’s threat standard needs to be revised after a “drafting error” caused different wording of the standard in the 764-page act dependent on what page. This discrepancy has allowed critics to point holes in the legislation, Ruddell said.

In order to deny a pretrial release, page 336 of the act says a judge can only impose detention “when it is determined that the defendant poses a specific, real and present threat to a person, or has a high likelihood of willful flight.”

However, page 374 finds that the “identity of the specific person or persons” that the state believes the defendant poses a danger to must be named to deny pretrial release. Instead of a specific individual, Ruddell said the bill should refer to a specific threat.

“These are changes that are basically meant to make the language conform with what the intent has always been,” said Ruddell.

What Ruddell and the ACLU is opposed to is recently introduced legislation from Champaign Democrat Sen. Scott Bennett, a former prosecutor.

Sen. Scott Bennett D-Champaign, left, talks with Attorney General Kwame Raoul on the senate floor Thursday. April 7, 2022. [Thomas J. Turney/The State Journal-Register]

According to a press release from his office, Senate Bill 4228 would maintain the elimination of cash bail but also address concerns of law enforcement officials in his district. If passed, the legislation would allow judges to “deny pretrial release for any alleged crime if the person arrested poses a threat to the safety of any person or the community.”

“Senate Bill 4228 is an effort to improve consistency in the SAFE-T Act and allow law enforcement officials to continue to effectively perform their duties and protect our communities,” Bennett said in a statement.

Ruddell said the legislation would “essentially gut” the PFA, seeing more people in jail and adding to racial disparities in the state’s 92 county jails. According to a 2018 report from the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, more than 90 percent of Illinoisans held in jail statewide are being detained pretrial.

Judges would be given carte blanche through SB 4228, Ruddell argued, as they could jail anyone regardless of the level of the crime. As the SAFE-T Act is currently written, law enforcement is required to grant a “citation in lieu ofcustodial arrest,” to an individual in cases of traffic, Class B or Class C criminal misdemeanors if they are not an obvious threat to the community or have health issues that put themselves at-risk.

“That is worse than the system we have now,” he said. That assessment is also shared by the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice, which claims it will increase incarceration and violate rights.

Voicemail messages left with Bennett’s office for comment on the opposition to his bill were not immediately returned.

Gov. JB Pritzker stopped short of fully endorsing Bennett’s bill during a forum with the Illinois Associated Press Media Editor’s Association, but supports the clarifying language included in the legislation.

Related:Illinois governor candidates JB Pritzker & Darren Bailey clash in first gubernatorial debate

“I haven’t gone through every provision that he has proposed, but I know that Senator Bennett, who was a prosecutor, a Democrat from Champaign and Vermillion counties, is somebody who is very careful in the way he approaches issues like this and I’m always open to working with people who are rational and reasonable in their proposals,” the governor said during the virtual opponent.

During last week’s gubernatorial debate, he said reform is needed in the bill but did not go into details as to what. His opponent, Republican state Sen. Darren Bailey, has been a vocal critic of the SAFE-T Act and supports its repeal.

Like Pritzker has noted, Ruddell said that when an individual cannot meet cash bail, pretrial incarceration is a disrupting force that can cause job loss and even homelessness in some cases.

The time to end the monetary bail system in the U.S. is now, he argued, as it only exists in two countries including the Philippines.

“When we take people out of their communities and put them in jail, we are leaving children without their parents, we are leaving families without breadwinners,” Ruddell said. “All of this destabilizes, not just the life of the individual once they get out of jail, but also their whole family.”

Last week, Sangamon County State’s Attorney Dan Wright and Sheriff Jack Campbell filed a lawsuit against Pritzker, Speaker of the House Emanuel Welch and Senate President Don Harmon over the constitutionality of the SAFE-T Act. Other counties, such as McLean, Knox, and Madison also have filed similar lawsuits.

More:Sangamon County state’s attorney, sheriff file lawsuit against Illinois

The lawsuit filed by Wright claims several violations including but not limited to the single-subject rule, where legislation should be confined to one subject unless it is an appropriations bill or codification or revision of a law, and the constitutional guarantee that “all persons should be bailable by sufficient sureties” with exception for capital offenses.

Sureties, the lawsuit says, are an “unambiguous and necessary feature of bail” and cannot be altered by legislation without an amendment to the Illinois Constitution. Ruddell said this argument was discussed at length in the legislature before ultimately being rejected.

“There is nothing in the record that suggests that’s what the writers of our constitution meant,” he said.

Next Wednesday, the sheriff will be joined by Springfield legislators Sen. Steve McClure and Rep. Sandy Hamilton at a SAFE-T Act town hall. The discussion will be held at 6 p.m. at the Piper Glen Golf Course.

Contact Patrick Keck: 312-549-9340,,

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October 14, 2022 at 07:08AM

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