BLOOMINGTON — While uncertainty continues to surround the measure ending cash bail in Illinois, local law enforcement officials say they have prepared for its implementation.
The controversial Pretrial Fairness Act, part of the SAFE-T Act criminal justice reform legislation passed in January 2021, ends the system in which most defendants can post a dollar amount to be released from custody before trial. Instead, it creates a new system in which judges weigh the person’s potential risk to the community and possibility of fleeing prosecution.
The law’s opponents have argued that judges are too limited by the list of circumstances in which pretrial detention is allowed. Advocates say the presumption that defendants on lesser, nonviolent charges will be released means that courts can give more thorough hearings to those accused of more serious offenses.
McLean County’s top prosecutor simultaneously readied her office to follow the law even as she joined efforts to block it. State’s Attorney Erika Reynolds is among over 60 state’s attorneys whose lawsuits opposing the legislation prompted a Kankakee County judge to declare it unconstitutional last week. An appeal is pending.
Still, Reynolds said her office has worked for months to brace for the law’s rollout, developing multiple contingency plans because “the community deserves for us to be prepared.”
McLean County prosecutors would be prepared to file requests for detention if the defendant fit the outlined criteria, Reynolds said. One judge likely would hear all requests for pretrial detention and requests for other types of pretrial conditions, which could include no-contact orders, she said.
Reynolds said her primary concern about the end of cash bail is ensuring the safety of victims. The longstanding system allows pretrial release conditions to be set by local judges, who are in the best position to make those determinations, she said.
“If the General Assembly wishes to take that constitutional guarantee away from the community,” she said, referring to the cash bail system, “they need to get the voters to approve it as opposed to presenting a bill in the middle of the night and demanding it be voted on within an hour, giving legislators no time to read it in its entirety.”
McLean County Sheriff Matt Lane said his objections do not stem from feelings about the necessity of cash bail, on which he said he is not taking a position. His problems are with the way the law is written.
“It’s contradictory in some places,” he said, and “just not feasible in others.”
The legislation directs police to issue a citation instead of taking people into custody for charges below Class A misdemeanors. But lawmakers later added language specifying that police maintain discretion to make an arrest if the person is a threat to the community or they continue to break the law.
Lane said the law could put officers at odds with the public’s expectations.
“Victims of crime expect something to be done, not just a notice to appear in court issued,” he said. “That’s not what they expect to happen when the police arrive to take care of the problem.”
He said the sheriff’s office had readied itself to implement the law and would continue to prepare until the Illinois Supreme Court decides whether to strike it down.
A spokesperson for the Bloomington Police Department said it has a committee reviewing the SAFE-T Act and related training.
Apart from that, representatives of both the Bloomington and Normal police departments would not discuss how implementation of any aspect of the law could be handled, citing the pending litigation.
‘Where’s the fairness?’
The SAFE-T Act was borne of the May 2020 police-involved murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Buoyed by a state Supreme Court commission that recommended reform, lawmakers eliminated bail to ease the burden on defendants, who are innocent until proven guilty, who can’t afford the price of pretrial freedom.
Local advocates say the legislation is intended to end a system that is inherently unfair to those without financial resources.
“What these lawsuits say is that the sheriffs and the counties prefer to allow folks who can afford it to opt into going free,” said Candice Byrd, member of the Black Lives Matter Bloomington-Normal charter’s leadership team.
“That tells me that our society still finds principle in allowing someone who commits a murder to be able to pay their way out or find a loophole so they can be free and enjoy that,” Byrd said, “while someone who has a traffic case and may be in poverty has to sit.”
Byrd, assistant director of Labyrinth Made Goods at YWCA McLean County, said she was disappointed to see McLean County among those suing to stop the legislation. She was not, however, surprised.
The Black Lives Matter organization has worked to educate people about the measure and dispel misconceptions, she said.
The law includes significant changes beyond the elimination of cash bail. For instance, defendants whom prosecutors are seeking to detain before trial will appear for detention hearings within 48 hours after their initial hearings.
“You can start getting things in order and folks can get back to work, back to their children, back to their family,” Byrd said. “… That time spent waiting to even get a determination from someone on what’s going to happen to you has been significantly cut down.”
Linda Foster, president of the Bloomington-Normal branch of the NAACP, said she believes lawmakers can work to ensure the SAFE-T Act makes the criminal justice system more fair and equitable for everyone.
“Let’s all put our heads together, as they have tried to do, without being in the position of ‘no.’ Let’s find a way that we can be successful in this,” she said, adding that what’s been missing from the conversation is the root of the issue — a lack of fairness and equity for all people in the court system.
Foster said the prosecutors who argue their priority is safety seem to have no answer for a defendant accused of murder who is able to pay bail and walk free while awaiting trial, leaving the defendant accused of retail theft — “who has caused no harm to a person” — sitting in jail if they’re unable to pay.
“Where’s the fairness?” she said, noting the law should keep more scrutiny for some charges and not open the door to every offender.
Defendants who are held pretrial can lose their employment, transportation and other opportunities while in custody, which can affect their ability to pay additional court costs that come with criminal charges, Foster said.
“There will be more discussion to come and there should be. It can be fair at no cost to the safety of citizens. We don’t want any harm to come to anybody,” she said.
Capitol News Illinois and The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Contact Kelsey Watznauer at (309) 820-3254. Follow her on Twitter: @kwatznauer.
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December 31, 2022 at 10:44AM