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SAFE-T Act: How Rockford-area lawmakers voted on the controversial legislation

Rockford Register Star

Wednesday, September 21, 2022  |  Article  |  Chris Green

— Every year, new state laws go into effective Jan. 1, but few are as controversial as the one that will do away with cash bail come January 2023.


The Pre-Trial Fairness Act, which eliminates the bail policy, is a provision in the comprehensive Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today (SAFE-T) Act, a criminal justice reform bill passed during the January 2021 lame duck session and signed a month later into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.


The law, among other things, requires all Illinois law enforcement officers to wear body cameras by 2025, creates a standardized use-of-force training for all officers, ends the requirement for citizens to sign sworn affidavits when filing complaints against officers, and requires officers to intervene whenever an officer sees another using excessive or unauthorized force.


But the portion of the law that is garnering the most publicity and scrutiny is the Pretrial Fairness Act and the elimination of cash bail.


The goal of the Act is to move away from the existing wealth-based system of pretrial detention and instead move to one that is based on an offender’s risk of reoffending or fleeing.


Proponents of the law argue the current system allows defendants — including those accused of committing serious crimes — with the financial means to post bond and remain free until proven guilty in a court of law. But those without the financial means — including those accused of minor infractions — are too often kept behind bars for months before their case is heard. During that time, the defendant risks losing his or her job, their home, and are more likely to re-offend.


Detractors, such as Winnebago County State's Attorney J. Hanley, warn as many as 400 people, half of the jail's inmate population, will be released come Jan. 1 as the new law requires a higher threshold that must be met by prosecutors to detain individuals pretrial.


We asked Rockford and Freeport area legislators to share how they voted on the Act and their thoughts about the elimination of cash bail.


Rep. Joe Sosnowski, R-Rockford, voted against the bill.


"I think there's just a lot of concern on how this can be carried out," he said. "I'm not necessarily adverse to eliminating cash bail, but, you know, this idea of simply releasing half of our jail population, despite some of them having very serious charges is very concerning to the public."


Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Cherry Valley, who also voted against the bill, said, "This whole idea about fairness in bonding, and the governor saying, 'Only the wealthy can get bonded out and the low-income can't.' You know, that's just totally not true. Judges already have this discretion, and it's called recognizance.


"So, this was more about taking away discretion from judges with this bill."


Andrew Chesney, R-Freeport, voted against the Act and wants it repealed.


He said the Act creates "non-detainable" offenses such as aggravated battery, DUI, fleeing, arson, burglary and second-degree murder.


"People are deeply concerned about this Act and how its rollout will apply to their safety," he said.


State Rep. Maurice West II, D-Rockford, who helped craft the legislation, said misinformation is purposely being spread about the Act as a "political ploy" to drum up fear and voter support as the the Nov. 8 election is less than two months away.


He said under the new law, prosecutors can petition the court to have people charged with murder and other violent crimes to be jailed pretrial if it can be proved to a judge that a defendant is a flight risk or “poses a specific, real, and present threat to any person or the community.” Whereas, currently, such defendants are released if they are able to post bond.


"So, I put faith in our state's attorney who's complaining about this," he said.


Under the new law, judges can still detain people if they are a flight risk, have violated their parole or probation or if they are already on a pretrial release for a previous charge.


As for non detainable offenses, the Act identifies offenses for which someone can be detained pretrial such as first-degree murder and sexual assault.


However, under the law as written, judges cannot order pretrial detention of an individual accused of second-degree murder, drug trafficking, arson, robbery, aggravated battery and other probational offenses unless prosecutors prove they are a risk for “willful flight” from prosecution.


West said there are taskforces at work to further clarify language in the Act. He also said the State's Attorneys' Association, the Illinois Sheriffs Association, Fraternal Order of Police members and other stakeholders have seats at the table.


"So, for them to demonize it now and spark fear into voters...it's very disheartening."


State Sen. Steve Stadelman, D-Rockford, said he did not vote for or against the legislation.

"It was my way of saying changes were needed," he said. "It's always been a work in progress and continues to be a work in progress."


Stadelman declined to say what specific concerns he had with the bill but suggested not all stakeholders have had an adequate input.


"I just think there continues to be more dialogue to work through a lot of the intricacies of this legislation," he said. "It's very comprehensive. Right? So, I just think the best legislation is when people can get a sense that they've been at the table working through compromises, and since a year and a half ago, that hasn't quite been achieved yet."


Phone calls to State Sen. Brian Stewart, R-Freeport, were not returned, and Rep. Dave Vella, D-Rockford, declined to comment.