Democrats only plan ‘strengthening and clarifying’ SAFE-T Act in veto session

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Flanked by lawmakers and supporters, Gov. J.B. Pritzker picks up the nearly 800-page criminal justice reform bill after signing it into law at Chicago State University on Feb. 22, 2021.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

The SAFE-T Act appears to be safe. At least for now. 

After months of being pummeled by Republicans and law enforcement officials over controversial provisions in the massive criminal justice reform package, Democrats say they expect “clean-up” language, but no substantial changes to the intent of the bill, when lawmakers head to Springfield next week. 

“There was never going to be any gutting. That was never on the table,” House Deputy Majority Leader Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria, told the Sun-Times. “It has always been about strengthening and clarifying the original language.” 

The SAFE-T Act affects several aspects of law enforcement in Illinois. Supporters say it’s intended to address long-standing public safety issues and police distrust in many communities. But this year’s election campaign featured blistering criticism from Republicans of the provision eliminating cash bail — which is set to go into effect Jan. 1.

Members of a working group, which include law enforcement, states attorneys, advocates and lawmakers, are still negotiating language that would become part of a trailer bill to be introduced in the fall veto session, which begins Tuesday.

House Deputy Majority Leader Jehan Gordon-Booth speaks as Gov. J.B. Pritzker prepares to sign the sweeping criminal justice reform bill last year.

Ashlee Rezin /Sun-Times

So far, the sponsors and supporters are not interested in “massive substantial changes,” another source with direct knowledge of the negotiations told the Sun-Times. 

Supporters of the bill are working to clarify provisions they claim have been “willfully misinterpreted,” including some drafting errors. 

The working group met for three hours on Wednesday and again on Thursday. Gordon-Booth said the conversations are “robust.”

“A lot of areas, we have a consensus,” Gordon-Booth said. “On some other areas, there’s some work left to do.” 

The reforms have already been signed into law, but Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Democratic lawmakers had pledged to look at any “clarifications” they needed to make in the veto session.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker prepares to sign the sweeping criminal justice reform bill known as the SAFE-T Act during a ceremony at Chicago State University last year.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The blue wave that washed over Illinois on Tuesday — and actually will likely add Democratic seats to the House — gives Pritzker and his party the political cover to argue the GOP blitzkrieg of negative TV ads and talking points have largely fallen on deaf ears, and voters agree the elimination of cash bail and other provisions are sound public policy. 

Democrats are taking a calculated risk, though, since a series of lawsuits challenging the SAFE-T Act are still pending. A consolidated lawsuit, made up of about 60 lawsuits challenging the legislation, may very well kill it. 

Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, is among those who believe the court will prevail against the legislation, which he has opposed since its inception.

“I feel that it is an overreach,” Durkin said on Thursday. “I believe that it is a complete annihilation of the separation of powers that we have under our Constitution and also flies right in the face of victims’ rights.” 

Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin sits at his desk in his office in The Loop on Thursday.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

And to those who believe Republicans were merely using the legislation as political fodder, Durkin said he and others have done their best to to provide “real life” examples of the repercussions of the legislation. 

But for now, Democrats are taking that risk after decisive Election Night wins. 

“Many of the things that were said about the SAFE-T Act were lies. Hard stop. Flat out lies,” Gordon-Booth said. “All the while, we’re still working with law enforcement to strengthen and clarify what is the intent of the original language from January 2021.”

At a livestreamed news conference on Thursday, state Sen. Anne Gillespie said that she found voters were supportive of the bill after they understood that it provides funding for body cameras and additional training for police officers. 

Also key to winning them over was explaining that elimination of cash bail will put judges’ focus on a criminal defendant’s risk assessment, as opposed to “whether they have access to cash” in determining if they should be held in jail while awaiting trial. 

State Sen. Ann Gillespie speaks during a news conference in the Heart of Chicago neighborhood in 2020.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

The roughly 60 SAFE-T Act lawsuits filed by Illinois state’s attorneys and sheriffs have all been consolidated before a judge in Kankakee County, who is aiming to rule on the challenges by Dec. 15. Oral arguments are set for Dec. 7.

That litigation is unlikely to be seriously affected by any tinkering in Springfield. Rather, the lawsuits revolve around whether the SAFE-T Act broadly aligns with the state constitution, both in its content and how it became law.

Still, the litigation raises questions about how certain aspects of the law will be interpreted once it goes into effect. 

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November 10, 2022 at 08:00PM

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