“CHICAGO VIOLENCE IS COMING TO THE SUBURBS,” the television ad cautioned in big, white lettering against a montage of video depicting violence on city streets.
Produced by a group backing Republican candidate for governor Darren Bailey, the ad’s eerie warning was aimed squarely at Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the sweeping criminal justice measures he signed into law last year that proponents argue promote police accountability and pave the way to a more equitable court system.
Detractors say the law will open the floodgates to more crime. The ad that aired last month claims that there will be a “mandatory release of violent criminals” when Illinois abolishes cash bail on Jan. 1.
Supporters were quick to call out that claim as false, as the law allows judges to keep defendants awaiting trial behind bars if they are deemed a flight risk or a danger to the public.
But exactly how all of the provisions in the 700-plus page Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today law, known as the SAFE-T Act, will play out remains to be seen, and misinformation has been rife as Republicans use the law to paint Pritzker and his fellow Democrats as soft on crime.
Democrats accuse the GOP of fearmongering with warnings that over time the sweeping reforms will worsen crime in Illinois. Inflammatory rhetoric over the law has only deepened divisiveness between the parties and become a major issue in the upcoming election.
“This law that was passed in 2021 is wide-ranging and complicated, and there’s room for thoughtful debate on the merits of the law, how it might be revised, fine-tuned, etc.,” said John Shaw, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. “But as we know, political campaigns, particularly in the stretch run, (are) not necessarily the time in which thoughtful debate takes ascendancy.”
The criminal reforms signed into law by Pritzker in February 2021 were controversial from the start, passing both state legislative chambers by narrow margins with some Democrats joining Republicans in voting no.
The law sought to address issues of police accountability and the rights of prisoners and of criminal defendants awaiting trial. It was spurred in part by controversial use-of-force incidents over the last decade by police across the country that have particularly affected minorities.
The law requires police officers statewide to wear body cameras by 2025; allows more anonymous complaints to be filed against police officers by 2023; ends the requirement for citizens to sign sworn affidavits when filing complaints against officers; and installs a more robust system for decertifying law enforcement.
Those provisions have detractors, particularly within law enforcement.
But perhaps the most contentious part of the law is a section known as the Pretrial Fairness Act, which includes the no-cash bail policy.
That provision is necessary, proponents say, because too many criminal defendants awaiting trial are kept behind bars only because they can’t afford to make bail.
Lake County’s Democratic state’s attorney, Eric Rinehart, said in an interview that he’s working with the county’s chief judge, public defender’s office and sheriff to determine which defendants housed in the county jail could remain incarcerated on Jan. 1 under the new pretrial provisions. But generally, he said, there’s no reason for defendants accused of nonviolent crimes to be kept in jail unless they’re a flight risk.
“Should we detain people who are presumed innocent? The answer is not to look at their bank account,” Rinehart, a former criminal defense attorney who supports the SAFE-T Act, said last week from his Waukegan offices. “And maybe $500 is easy for some people and it’s not for other people. But why is that income difference, or why is that savings difference, the thing that decides freedom?”
Despite assertions being made on social media and elsewhere, the elimination of bail doesn’t mean criminal defendants will automatically get released from county jails while awaiting trial. Prosecutors will be able to argue before judges that defendants should be detained at their initial court appearance.
But many prosecutors worry the provision requires too high of a bar to convince judges to detain criminal defendants.
DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert Berlin expressed serious concerns about the Pretrial Fairness Act and said too many aspects of the law remain confusing, making it unclear how they will work in practice.
“We would all agree, and I want to make it clear, I agree, somebody should not be held in jail pending trial just because they can’t afford to post a bond,” said Berlin, a Republican.
But, he added, “Without a robust preventive detention statute, yes, we are opposed to eliminating (cash bail) because violent criminals here are going to get out.”
Last week, Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow and his counterpart in Kankakee County sued Pritzker and other top state Democrats over the law, alleging they violated the state’s constitution when they pushed through the sweeping criminal justice reforms last year.
Bailey, a state senator from downstate Xenia, has promised to push for the repeal of the reforms if elected governor.
“Our law enforcement officers are alarmed and bracing for the flood of violent criminals about to be released into Illinois neighborhoods, thanks to J.B. Pritzker’s criminal coddling policies like the SAFE-T Act (and its) no-cash bail,” Bailey said in Springfield earlier this month.
Speaking to reporters last week, Pritzker made the argument that the law will actually help keep more accused “murderers and domestic abusers, violent criminals” in jail because they will no longer be able to “buy their way out of jail by just paying bail.”
He also acknowledged the law could be modified down the line.
“Are there changes or adjustments that need to be made? Of course, and there have been adjustments made and there will continue to be,” he said.
The law’s detractors say cash-free bail will exacerbate spikes in crimes that plagued Chicago and other parts of Illinois during the pandemic.
In Chicago, total shootings and homicides have each risen by about a third since 2019, a tumultuous period during which, some criminologists suggest, street violence across the U.S. was intensified by increased distrust of police following the murder of George Floyd by police in Minnesota.
“Most everyone in this state, besides the Democrats who passed this law, knew there were going to be horrific and horrific real-world consequences created by these poorly thought out changes,” Illinois House GOP Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs said in an online February news conference with fellow Republican legislators.
The law’s supporters say much of the criticism of the law is based on misinformation, most prominently the suggestion that all murder suspects will be released from county jails on New Year’s Day and that the law will defund the police.
Durkin warned at the Zoom-based news conference that “for the first time, a defendant will be able to compel a victim to appear at a detention hearing,” a proceeding that will replace a traditional bond hearing.
“I have no idea what, other than intimidation … that would be able to accomplish but to drag a victim, a woman who has been beaten close to death or a child who has been sexually assaulted … (into being) compelled through the defendant to appear at a detention hearing,” Durkin said.
After Durkin’s news conference, the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation alleged over Twitter that the Republicans used “gender-based violence victims to make false and repeated claims” about the law. CAASE cited an excerpt of the statute to argue that the Pretrial Fairness Act actually makes it more difficult for defense attorneys to call victims to the witness stand in court.
According to the statute, the defense “shall petition the court for permission” to call a “complaining witness,” or victim, in its favor. The defense’s request to compel a victim to testify would be granted only if the judge finds “by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant will be materially prejudiced” without the victim’s testimony.
The law also is supposed to make it easier for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking to file protective orders against suspects.
The TV ad that warns of violence coming to the suburbs is from an independent expenditure committee run by right-wing radio host Dan Proft of Naples, Florida. The ad suggests that defendants accused of crimes like kidnapping, robbery, second-degree murder, drug-induced homicide, aggravated DUI, threatening a public official and aggravated fleeing and eluding will automatically be released on bail.
After it first aired, the Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts, an advocacy organization pushing for court reforms, issued a statement pointing out that the law allows courts to hold people accused of some or all those offenses in custody if they pose a flight risk. The law also allows judges to hold defendants charged with certain crimes in custody if they violate conditions of their pretrial release or present a threat to the public.
Proft has also been accused of spreading misinformation through his political action committee through political mailings that resemble newspapers and warn potential voters about the SAFE-T Act.
One of those mailings, the “Chicago City Wire,” included a two-page spread of photos of some three dozen defendants, predominantly people of color, who were labeled as suspects in serious crimes who could be released from Cook County Jail under the no-cash bail policy, again with no mention that a judge will be required to weigh whether a defendant should be released.
In a Facebook post on Tuesday, downstate attorney Thomas DeVore, the Republican nominee for attorney general, made an inaccurate claim that when criminal defendants are released onto the streets on Jan. 1 and don’t show up to court, “the police can NOT go arrest them.”
The law, in fact, indicates judges can issue a warrant for defendants to be arrested if they skip court.
Still, Democrats, under pressure to address crime in an election year, have been pressured to make some tweaks to the SAFE-T Act since Pritzker signed it into law and could make additional tweaks during the legislative veto session later this fall, before the pretrial provisions go into effect.
One element of the law that sources said could be changed is a measure taking effect Jan. 1 that requires police officers only to issue tickets, instead of making arrests, for certain misdemeanors if the suspect poses no threat to the community.
The misdemeanors include trespassing, leading to fears fanned by opponents to the law that it’d be impossible to get a stranger off their property. Sources said this section could be changed to make it more clear that police have the option to make arrests in these situations.
Also being looked at for possible tweaks is the standard for determining whether a defendant is a flight risk. Berlin is among those who think the law sets too high of a bar.
“Unless (defendants) have a flight ticket out of town, or they tell the police, ‘hey, if I get out, I’m taking off,’ ” it will be difficult to prove someone’s a flight risk, he said.
During a news conference Thursday outside the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago, state Rep. Justin Slaughter, a South Side Democrat who was the chief House sponsor of the SAFE-T Act, said “we’re continuing to work through these definitions” in the law as currently written.
“We will have a system that prioritizes public safety,” he said.
Other elements of the law also feed the opposition’s argument that too many criminals will be released onto the streets.
The pretrial fairness provision will allow judges to place defendants on electronic monitoring only if there aren’t less restrictive conditions that would guarantee that a defendant would show up to court. Defendants would also get credit for time served for the days they’re on electronic monitoring
The law also allows prison inmates to get time shaved off their sentences — up to six months if they’re serving less than a five-year term and up to a year if they’re serving five or more years — if they participate in rehabilitative programs.
It also allows judges to issue a sentence of probation for those convicted of certain offenses that currently carry mandatory-minimum prison sentences involving drug possession, retail theft or driving on a revoked license due to unpaid fees.
Opponents argue too many defendants already are being arrested for serious crimes after being released from custody while awaiting trial. But the impact that early release, due to either low bail or lenient prison sentences, has on Chicago’s gun violence statistics is unclear partly because arrest rates in the city are low.
In a webinar presentation about the SAFE-T Act earlier this month, Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell said that crimes committed by people who were freed on electronic monitoring, for instance, remain outliers that get outsized attention.
“If we have, let’s say, those numbers that suggest that, you know, 1% of people are rearrested for a new crime, well the reality of our system when it comes to how we receive news is that you’ll hear about 99% of that 1%,” Mitchell said.
Before a closed-door meeting of fellow Democrats earlier this month, Rinehart was invited to a northwest suburban library to discuss what he believes is a myth that their party is soft on crime.
He touted his office’s use of better data to manage its dockets so prosecutors can focus on violent crime cases. He also talked about the SAFE-T Act and what it means for Lake County.
A group of residents, some affiliated with the Republican Party, was turned away from the meeting.
In the parking lot, the residents, who included elected officials, expressed concern about both the release of jailed detainees and a possible lack of teeth in efforts to do anything about trespassers.
“So if anyone can be in my yard and they can go on my dock, what if they fall in and drown because they’re drunk? Who’s responsible? Am I?” said Deborah Schroeder, a Lake County Republican precinct committeewoman who lives along a lake.
Democrats behind the law acknowledge it’s not perfect. Mitchell, the Cook County public defender, said he’s “not going to lie to you and say that this bill will end harm in the state of Illinois, in the county of Cook, in the city of Chicago.”
“But what I can say is that this (law) is a step forward, that you have people out there who have high office, who you would think have a duty to the truth, (and) quite frankly (they’re) just telling lies about what the law does,” he said.