Illinois Senate approves changes to SAFE-T Act, which now go to House

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SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Senate on Thursday approved a series of changes to a nearly two-year-old criminal justice reform law just one month before some of its key provisions, including a controversial measure to eliminate cash bail, are slated to take effect.

An amendment that codifies the changes to the sweeping legislation, also known as the SAFE-T Act, passed in the Democratic-led Senate by a 38-17 party-line vote and will now move to the House.

The amendment included clarifications to the process for transitioning from the cash bail system to one that sets out specific criteria for judges to determine whether defendants should be incarcerated while awaiting trial.

The amendment also clarifies the standards that judges must follow when considering whether a defendant presents a danger to the public and should remain jailed.

Defendants charged with crimes before Jan. 1 would have the option to remain under the old bail system or be moved to the new system. To ease the burden on the court system, the amendment sets out specific time frames for holding detention hearings for those shifting to the new system.

Defendants accused of nonviolent offenses must have their hearings within seven days, while those deemed to be a flight risk must appear in court within 60 days. Defendants considered to be a safety threat, such as those accused of murder, sexual assault and other violent crimes, must have a hearing within 90 days.

The proposal also seeks to make clear that police can arrest people for misdemeanors such as trespassing that generally require only a ticket. The amendment clarifies that police can arrest someone for such crimes if they believe “the accused poses a threat to the community or any person” or if “criminal activity persists” after a ticket is written.

Misinformation over the law was rife during the recent election campaign, even as supporters acknowledged some clarification to the legislation signed into law by Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker in February 2021 was needed.

While opponents of the law stoked fears that it would lead to an emptying of county jails, judges have the ability to keep defendants behind bars if the state can show they were a flight risk or a danger to the public.

Prosecutors had expressed concern that it would be almost impossible to make an argument that a defendant is a flight risk because the law prevented them from using a defendant’s prior history of failing to appear in court. Under the amendment passed by the Senate, patterns of failing to show up for court — but not a single nonappearance — can be used in making the argument for detention.

The proposal also creates a grant program for jurisdictions to employ more public defenders to meet a possible increase in caseload.

Written and passed in early 2021 by the Democratic-controlled legislature, supporters of the SAFE-T Act say it addresses inequities in the criminal justice system that, among other things, leave many defendants sitting in jail simply because they can’t afford bail.

The elimination of cash bail of the law generated extreme heat during the just-completed election, as Republicans painted Pritzker and other Democrats as soft on crime for backing a measure that does away with cash bail as of New Year’s Day.

This fall, about 60 state’s attorneys across Illinois, including some Democrats, joined a lawsuit against Pritzker and other top Democrats contending that the passage of the law violated the Illinois constitution. A Kankakee County judge could issue a ruling on the lawsuit as early as next month.

jgorner@chicagotribune.com

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December 1, 2022 at 03:07PM

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