• Ben Szalinski
    SEP 19, 2023


    ‘Restoring the faith in our criminal justice system:’ Illinois begins implementing long-awaited and controversial criminal justice reform

    House Speaker Chris Welch (D-Hillside) and other lawmakers and advocates speak at a news conference outside the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago on Monday. [Ben Szalinski/The Daily Line] 

    After more than two years of waiting, Illinois became the first state on Monday to end cash bail as a condition of pretrial release as a law loathed by opponents and praised by supporters took effect.  

    The controversial Pretrial Fairness Act (PFA), the portion of the SAFE-T Act that revamps the pretrial system and eliminates cash bail, took effect on Monday following an Illinois Supreme Court ruling earlier this year upholding the law. Lawmakers first approved the law in January 2021, and it was supposed to take effect this past January until legal challenges delayed it.   


    The law has been painted as a civil rights victory that ends a remnant of a justice system that targeted people of color, while those who opposed the law warned of a “purge” of county jails when it took effect. Lawmakers who passed the law gathered outside the Cook County criminal courthouse in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood on Monday to celebrate the law more than two and half years after it was first passed.   

    “Today, we are one step closer to a detention system, that puts victims first,” House Speaker Chris Welch (D-Hillside) said. “Today, Illinois is no longer criminalizing poverty, and the entire nation has their eyes on us.”  

    Prosecutors now must convince a judge a person is a threat to society or a flight risk if they are released from prison before trial, most often following forcible felony charges. People charged with nonviolent felonies or misdemeanors, such as retail theft or drug possession, will be more likely to be released under the changes.    

    Supporters of the law say it’s designed to ensure people who are threats to society stay behind bars, and people who aren’t a threat can go about their life while awaiting trial, especially if they lacked money to pay their bond and get released from jail under the cash system.  

    “The practice of putting a price tag on a fellow human’s freedom is a practice that we teach our young people was ended long ago,” Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell said. “Today marks the first time that we can deliver that message with honesty. Money bond was a deplorable practice — a practice that forced many in Black and brown families to pay a ransom, and if not paid, loved one’s presumption of innocence, physical safety, or access to a fair outcome was forfeited.”   

    The idea of eliminating cash bail was on the minds of lawmakers and judicial system task forces in Illinois even before racial justice protests in 2020 helped lawmakers put the law on paper in January 2021.   

    “Those [lawmakers] dared to ask the question: Why are people in our society being detained in jail pretrial simply because they’re poor?” Senate President Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) said. “Thanks to them, today a new era begins in criminal justice.”   

    The SAFE-T Act is now fully in effect and Rep. Justin Slaughter (D-Chicago), who led the bill through the House, said it is “about restoring the faith in our criminal justice system.”   

    “What we’re doing here is reworking our system, streamlining our system to address those higher-level offenses,” Slaughter said.   

    Republicans opposed to the law believe it will result in more people who committed violent felonies being granted pretrial release.   

    “This law makes it more difficult for police officers and prosecutors to keep our communities safe by ensuring offenders in most cases can walk free shortly after committing a heinous offense,” House Minority Leader Tony McCombie (R-Savanna) said in a statement. “Ending cash bail has produced harmful results in other cities and states, and we have no reason to believe Illinois will be any different. We can only hope that innocent victims’ lives are not the ultimate price we have to pay.”  

    Ongoing research by Loyola University professors has found that many people in Illinois arrested for violent crimes were already released from prison on bond before trial and about 65 percent of people awaiting trial for all types of offenses were not behind bars. Other studies have found that in New York and New Jersey where some cash bail reforms have been implemented, there has been little change in rates of how often a person skips court or commits a new offense while awaiting trial.   

    Now comes the work of implementing the law that was only publicly supported by two of Illinois’ 102 state’s attorneys: Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Lake County State’s Attorney Eric Rinehart, both Democrats.   

    “Please be patient as the state rolls this out,” Slaughter said.   

    Slaughter said people should be watching what offenses people are being detained for, if speedy trial rights are being met, if public defenders are expanding their resources, how much electronic monitoring is being used as a condition of release, and what new programs are being created to help underserved communities to see if the SAFE-T Act is being implemented as intended.   

    Lawmakers said they will be closely watching to see that the law is implemented correctly, and if decisions are made by judges or prosecutors that go against the law.  

    “We’re going to watch and pay attention to how this goes to make sure that it’s implemented in every county throughout the state,” Sen. Robert Peters (D-Chicago) said. “There have been people who have been speaking out throughout this state who seems like they’re hinting that they may not implement this fairly.”   

    Lawmakers acknowledged Monday’s implementation doesn’t mean the criticism goes away.   

    “Right-wingers have engaged in literal misinformation, fake newspapers… I ask that they set aside their politics and their old ways and join us in giving their constituents a better life,” Peters said.   

    The Illinois Freedom Caucus, comprised of the Illinois House’s most conservative lawmakers, posted an image on social media with a list of forcible felony offenses they say are “now easier for criminals to be let out of jail” for. However, nearly all felonies on the list are eligible for pretrial detention.   

    “We have seen over the course of the last two-and-a-half years every trick of the trade to try to dissuade this moment,” Foxx said. “What I would ask is why? What is so fearful about having a system that is fair and just? What is so disarming that people are not detained because people are poor? What is it about the demographic that’s impacted by this system that is so chilling to others throughout this state?”  

    Even those who support the law have raised concerns, especially about expanded electronic monitoring capabilities around the state.   

    “The work to address the harm caused by our pretrial system cannot stop at ending money bond, we must ensure that that archaic system is not replaced with this ruinous technology,” Cook County Comm. Anthony Quezeda (8) said in a statement last week.  

    Peters and Slaughter both said they’ll be watching the use of electronic monitoring carefully as the law takes effect.   

    “We’ll see more of our population on electronic monitoring,” Slaughter said. “The General Assembly is going to be paying attention to that trying to preempt some of these concerns and some of these questions.”  

    Supporters of the law said there will still be more work to improve the criminal justice system, but now it’s about seeing how these changes work. Asked how lawmakers will know that the law is achieving their goals, Peters said the criminal justice system will show signs of being more equal to all parties.   

    “I’m not going to say it’s going to be 100 percent be perfect,” Peters said. “I always tell people we don’t work in the world of perfection. It doesn’t work that way… if 99 out of 100 times it works, to me that is also a success.”  

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