PEORIA − Next year is expected to bring sweeping change to the way criminal justice is administered statewide with the elimination of cash bail in Illinois.
The move is part of the SAFE-T Act, which overhauls the state’s criminal justice system. Proponents feel it will allow people, especially minorities and those with lower incomes, to avoid lengthy incarceration while awaiting trial. Opponents worry this could put too much pressure on officers to make decisions when making an arrest.
Law enforcement has expressed concern about what it decries as the vagueness of the new law and is hoping legislators will fine-tune things during their November veto session.
What we have now and what will change
The new law will change the way judges and prosecutors look at pretrial detention. Right now, a person arrested for a crime is given either a notice to appear later in court or held in jail based on the ability to pay a certain amount of money. A judge’s decision is based on whether the accused is a flight risk, whether they are a risk to the community and the likelihood they will appear in court.
“The system that we have today allows people to buy their way out of jail even when they pose a threat to a victim,” state Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth said. “What about a scenario where a man who beats his wife? He’s clearly more of a threat rather than a person who commits a crime of poverty.”
The law will eliminate the need for people to pay money to get out of jail for many offenses, including: second-degree murder, arson, drug-induced homicide, robbery, kidnapping, aggravated battery, burglary, intimidation, aggravated driving under the influence, fleeing and eluding and drug offenses.
The elimination of cash bail doesn’t mean people can’t be held in jail for those offenses.
Prosecutors still can argue to a judge that a person is a flight risk or presents a real threat to a specific person or the community, and thus should remain in jail. Gordon-Booth says that ensures those who should be held are and others, who aren’t posing a risk, can be released, go back to work and save taxpayers the expense of housing them.
“Things are on a scale. Someone stealing Enfamil from the local Walmart and someone breaking into a home with a weapon or burglary tools are different things,” she said.
Advocates say the system will look something like how federal judges determine who is in custody or not. There, a judge usually decides if a person is in or out after a detention hearing. A person can appeal that and ask to be released.
What do sheriffs think?
Tazewell County Sheriff Jeff Lower minced no words, saying, “You have our leaders in Chicago saying that we are giving all the control to the judges, and that’s a blatant lie. If you look at the statute, this is a total game changer of how we do our jobs.”
To him, no-cash bail will put more work on his deputies and on judges. Moreover, he’s upset there are only a few months until Jan. 1 and he doesn’t know yet how this will look within Tazewell County.
“I don’t know what to tell my deputies or anyone on the street how to respond yet,” he said. “We just don’t know yet. The state’s attorney (Kevin Johnson) doesn’t know yet either. We have gotten no instruction from the training board well on how to manage this.”
Peoria County Sheriff Chris Watkins agrees the law needs more work. What happens, he asks, if people are released and then miss their court date? Under the old system, an arrest warrant would be issued. Now, he said, things have changed.
“After they are released, they have a court date,” he said. “If and when they miss that court date, what happens to them? The legislators made it a priority that we try to serve them a new subpoena and a new court date. So now, I have to hire more process servers to serve subpoenas. I’m very concerned with how that will go.”
Watkins is also worried about the law’s ambiguity, which he says could lead to some confusion over what can be proven during a hearing. He fears the bar might be set too high in some cases.
“How does this make us safer?” he asked.
Both men said they will work to make the system better and say they don’t see much of a change for their counties, which already have pretrial services teams who interview detainees and screen them for lower bonds or even release. Both counties have systems in place for electronic monitoring of those who are free on bond. But the uncertainty worries them.
“For me personally, Tazewell County has done a good job, using a similar philosophy,” Lower said. “We don’t hold people in jail if they can’t just post bond. First offenders often have low bonds or even no bonds. Cook County is the problem, but these laws are being pushed to the rest of us who didn’t have the same problems of Cook County.”
What the prosecutors say
Peoria County State’s Attorney Jodi Hoos has been working with other prosecutors across the state on the act’s final details. Although lawsuits are being filed in the leadup to elections next month, Hoos said it’s not about politics.
“We want to clarify language regarding which offenses a person can be held in custody on and what factors a judge can consider for detainment, as well as how we will handle outstanding warrants and people that are currently in custody. I remain optimistic that common sense will result in necessary changes prior to January 1,” she said.
Johnson, the Tazewell County state’s attorney, said it’ll be “difficult to plan how we are going to educate law enforcement about the requirements of the act, let alone set policy and procedures to meet the act’s requirements,” largely due to the lack of final details.
Lower and Johnson have filed a lawsuit in Tazewell County Circuit Court to have the SAFE-T Act declared unconstitutional. Several other counties, including Knox, McLean, Kankakee, Sangamon and Winnebago, have filed similar lawsuits. The Tazewell County suit holds that the act violates several tenets of the state’s constitution by trespassing upon the rights of counties to prosecute their own cases.
“That this will lead to increased delays in cases handled by Plaintiff Kevin Johnson’s office, not only leading to delay in administration of justice, but also increase staff workloads and costs,” the suit states.
Johnson agreed with Lower that Tazewell has a leg up because it has been doing some type of a pretrial review for years.
John Horan, who heads court services, had the foresight beginning in 2014 to anticipate the possibility of the elimination of cash bail and planned accordingly, he said.
“We currently have three pretrial supervision officers, along with their supervisor, who have been utilizing risk assessment tools for a number of years in preparing their pretrial conditional release recommendations for the judge setting bond and are experienced in supervising those defendants who are released on bond,” Johnson said.
Hoos noted Peoria County, too, has a pretrial services staff as part of its probation department.
“The Pre-Trial Fairness Act was created to prevent individuals who are not a danger to the community from sitting in jail simply because they cannot afford bond,” Hoos said. “This is already happening in Peoria County. The individuals in our jail are there for a reason, not because they cannot post whatever bond was assessed.”
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