State Lawmakers Have Quiet Discussions But Take No Formal Action on SAFE-T Act Revisions

The future of criminal justice in Illinois is in play as legislators decide what, if any, changes will be made to a new law that will eliminate cash bail starting in January.

It’s been two years since Illinois Democrats passed the major criminal justice law known as the SAFE-T Act, but it’s getting a lot of attention now as the bail overhaul approaches. During the election, Republican candidates tried to hammer the message to voters that the law is dangerous.

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It’s a message that Democratic state Sen. Robert Peters of Chicago said voters roundly rejected, as evidenced by the defeat on Nov. 8 of every Republican on the statewide ballot and GOP losses in key races that will further the party’s super-minority status in Springfield.

“We have to look at what happened last week. It was a mandate. $50 million in the primary, $50 million in the general; $100 million overall. They (Republican campaigns) said all types of things: purge, it’s all over,” Peters said. “We’re still here.”

Backers of the law say cash bail is racist and punishes the poor, and they celebrate Illinois’ law as historic.

“This will make Illinois the first state in the union to end the practice of jailing people because they don’t have money to buy their freedom,” said Briana Payton of the Chicago Community Bond Fund.

Advocates are pushing back against an effort to retool the law.

“We can’t afford rollbacks, we can’t afford cuts to the bill, we can’t afford changes to the bill. We must have pre-trial fairness, we must have a SAFE-T Act that addresses police brutality and all of the other issues that are rolled up into that monumental bill,” said the Rev. Charles Straight of the Faith United Methodist Church in Dolton. “And it has to go forward as it is written.”

The prospect the law will be changed is not just theoretical.

About half of Illinois' state’s attorneys have filed a lawsuit seeking to strike the law. These prosecutors say the law is flawed, and in cases will prevent judges from keeping potentially dangerous criminals locked up before they’ve stood trial.

Some Democrats, including various lawmakers and Gov. J.B. Pritzker say there are changes that should be addressed.

“I’ll be watching carefully, I’ve made my thoughts clear and we’ll see if we can get something done during the veto session to address some of the changes that we ought to be making,” Pritzker said at an unrelated press conference the day after the election.

The first week of veto session is now over. Legislators discussed the SAFE-T Act behind closed doors during their brief time in Springfield on Tuesday and Wednesday, but they didn’t take any action.

True debate is expected after Thanksgiving, during the veto session’s final scheduled three days of the veto session – the last time the General Assembly is set to meet before the new year.

But questions remain, including if there will be enough votes to support changes, and how far will those changes go.

Former prosecutor John Curran, who on Tuesday night was elected by Senate Republicans as their next leader, said Republicans have not been part of those talks.

“We continue to be frozen out of this process. I am in regular communication with the state’s attorneys that are at the negotiating table and involved, as well as the chief of police representative and the sheriff representative,” Curran said. “It sounds like it’s been a very uneven process that’s taken place behind closed doors. If they open that process up I think we can get a lot of these issues resolved.”

Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-1.

Curran said he knows that Democrats therefore have the numbers to go it alone.

“What we know is the go-it-alone path is going to produce results that are not meeting the needs of working families in Illinois. They are at the point, they’re not going to be able to handle their base if they go it alone,” Curran said. “They need Republicans participating in the process in a meaningful manner in order to moderate and bring balance to what we do as policy makers for all Illinoisians. So we play an incredible, important role. Democrats would be foolish not to respect that and invite that in.”

Curran said Democrats are willing to invite him to be part of talks — he’ll be there. He said the SAFE-T Act is a prime example of how working together could have led to a better law.

“You look at the two years of turmoil and public consternation and fear that that has created because of the go-it-alone approach, Republicans were frozen out two years ago in that process,” he said.

Curran backs the principle of moving from cash bail, but the law as-written is flawed.

But for some of the law’s backers, repairing flaws is akin to gutting the heart of what they’re trying to accomplish with the SAFE-T Act and the elimination of cash bail, known as the Pretrial Fairness Act.

Curran is set to officially take over in mid-January as Senate minority leader. He said his priority is helping working families, and helping to unburden businesses so they can create more jobs.

House Republicans are also set to have a new leader. On Tuesday, members of the House GOP elected state Rep. Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, to serve as the House minority leader starting in 2023. 

Video: Watch out full interview with Tony McCombie. 

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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