Lawsuits challenging Illinois cashless-bail law stacking up as Pritzker signals changes ahead

Prosecutors among those suing to block law they say will worsen crime, harm public safety.

Published: October 10, 2022 1:34pm

Updated: October 10, 2022 11:33pm

(The Center Square) -

Amending Illinois’ SAFE-T Act likely won’t happen until after the November election that's less than a month away, but it’s becoming more clear changes are ahead before implementation on New Year’s Day.

The lawsuits against the state trying to block the law that eliminates cash bail starting Jan. 1 are stacking up.

Last week, Sangamon County State’s Attorney Dan Wright filed a lawsuit challenging the act's constitutionality for various reasons. Wright said in a statement the law set to take effect Jan. 1 “contains confusing and inconsistent provisions likely resulting in divergent interpretations and disparate outcomes” across the state. Other measures are clear, but raise “sincerely-held public safety concerns,” Wright said.

“Offenses which are truly not ‘detainable’ under the Act include misdemeanor offenses and Class 4 felonies not specifically listed in the plain language,” Wright said. “These offenses include, among others, Aggravated DUI causing great bodily harm, certain Hate Crime offenses, Aggravated Assault with a firearm, Concealment of Death, and threats of violence against a person at a school.”

Wright said starting Jan. 1, judges will no longer have discretion to assess danger to the community as a whole when considering pretrial detention of individuals charged with a broad range of violent and dangerous offenses.

“Aggravated Battery (including great bodily harm or permanent disfigurement), Aggravated DUI (fatality), Aggravated Fleeing and Eluding a Peace Officer, Aggravated Leaving the Scene of an Accident (great bodily harm or death), Arson, Burglary, Drug-Induced Homicide, Intimidation (including threats against witnesses and potential jurors); Kidnaping, Robbery, Second-Degree Murder, Threatening a Public Official, Possession of a Firearm by a Gang Member, Possession of a Stolen Firearm, Concealment of a Homicidal Death, Theft in any amount, and all offenses involving lethal drug distribution,” Wright listed.

Similar challenges have been filed by other state’s attorneys from both political parties across the state.

“The bipartisan opposition to the SAFE-T Act is not about politics. It is about public safety,” said Madison County State’s Attorney Thomas Haine. Haine also filed a lawsuit last week to block the act’s implementation. “This lawsuit gives our court system an opportunity to properly vet this law where our political branches have failed, and protect the citizens of Madison County from the disaster that is the SAFE-T Act as it is currently written.”

The Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today Act was passed during the final hours of the previous legislature in January 2021. Both Wright’s and Haine’s lawsuits note the measure was first brought up as a 764-page amendment to a bill that was ready for final passage. The bill passed the Senate in the early morning hours.

Only two speakers from each side were allowed to debate the measure on the Senate floor, Haine’s lawsuit said.

“Many of our constituents are going to read about legislation that consisted of more than 700 pages that was debated at 4:30 a.m., and they’re going to read, watch, and listen to those news reports about this legislation and immediately cast suspicion about what’s being done in the eleventh hour of this lame-duck session,” the lawsuits quote state Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, from that January 2021 debate.

Sangamon and Madison counties’ lawsuits add to similar lawsuits from Knox, Winnebago, Boone, McHenry, Kankakee and Will counties.

Friday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker again acknowledged changes are ahead for the controversial act.

“What we’re aiming at here is keeping murderers and rapists and domestic abusers in jail and not keeping people who can’t afford bail for a non-violent offense … not putting them in jail, but allowing them to get out of jail,” Pritzker told reporters at an unrelated news event.

Pritzker said a recent measure filed by state Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign, is worth evaluating.

“He’s really, I think, written a pretty good bill, the provisions of which we should go through and decide which ones are appropriate,” Pritzker said. “Working together in committee hearings and working groups, there are appropriate changes to make.”

Bennett’s legislation already has found opposition from a group supporting the SAFE-T Act. The Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice said if Bennett’s bill were to pass, the number of people jailed awaiting trial would “skyrocket.”

“The Pretrial Fairness Act was designed to ensure that everyone has access to the presumption of innocence, and the changes included in [Bennett's bill] would deny all [Illinoisans] that right," the group said in a statement. "If passed, these measures would create a pretrial system that is far worse than the one in place today."

Unless there’s a special session called, state lawmakers won’t return to the capitol until the week after the Nov. 8 election.

Wright notes “the Act includes many provisions that will bring positive reform,” but Illinoisans are “counting on their elected officials to pass a responsible trailer bill which incorporates the very real concerns of public safety officials and sufficiently preserves the underlying reforms intended by the legislature.”

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