After the 2020 death of George Floyd, jurisdictions across the United States enacted changes to their criminal-justice systems—slates of reforms generally described under the catchall term “bail reform.” One such effort is an 800-page Illinois bill signed into law by Governor J. B. Pritzker: the SAFE-T Act (the Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today Act). The law represents yet another slapdash effort to inject “equity” into the criminal-justice system and will likely produce the usual result: more repeat offenders on the street and rising crime numbers, especially in the very communities that the bill seeks to protect.
The SAFE-T Act mandates changes to police training and certification, use-of-force, use of body cameras, and the rights of detainees. Its most controversial measure—the virtual elimination of cash bail—won’t take effect until January 1, but state’s attorneys and law-enforcement groups are already warning that the law was rushed and is poorly worded. To paraphrase Nancy Pelosi, it’s another case of passing the bill to find out what’s in it.
The requirement for police body cameras (not due to be fully implemented until 2025), for instance, outlines a complex set of rules for when officers must have bodycams turned on or off. Law-enforcement sources claim that the rules are too convoluted to work on the street, setting up criminal-court challenges over footage that will inevitably be deemed “missing.”
The law’s architects also overlooked the administrative aspects of the bodycam requirements. For instance, defense attorneys for wealthy clients—or even motivated public defenders—can clog courts with requests for bodycam footage from any officer who might have been at a scene. Identifying who was there and at what time can take hours of investigation, and the editing out of irrelevant witnesses and juveniles is a painstaking technical process. Multiply that by thousands of arrests, and you get a bureaucratic quagmire.
To be clear: bodycam programs are generally a good idea. In most cases, the footage works to police advantage, supporting prosecutions and exonerating cops accused of misconduct; bodycams also make clear when police have abused their power. But implementation of bodycam programs without careful consideration creates as many problems as it solves.
The SAFE-T Act also mandates that detainees be allowed to make three phone calls from each location at which they are held. Individuals in police custody are, at a minimum, moved from a precinct to a court location for arraignment and then either released or handed off to corrections. But there might be many other stops along the way, particularly in a complex case in which an arrestee must be debriefed or becomes a cooperator. The requirement that the arrestee get three phone calls at every location is a logistical nightmare. Add the requirement that calls involving counsel be unmonitored, and you have new opportunities for witness intimidation, as well as another bureaucratic loophole that defense and civil lawyers can exploit.
Finally, there is the bail-reform aspect itself, which has stirred the most controversy—first and foremost because no one is quite sure what it says. One section mandates that all defendants “shall be presumed eligible” for release unless prosecutors present “clear and convincing” evidence that the arrestee is a threat to the safety of a “specific, identifiable” person. This constitutes a narrowly defined “danger standard.” But the bill’s language also appears to enumerate a subset of crimes for which only a risk of flight can be used to deny release. Those crimes include aggravated battery, robbery, burglary, aggravated DUI, kidnapping, vehicular homicide, and all drug offenses.
Critics claim that, for these crimes, the SAFE-T Act has removed the danger standard and precluded judges’ discretion. Not so, says a spokesperson for Pritzker’s office, Jordan Abudayyeh, who states that “there is no such thing as a ‘non-detainable’ offense . . . and those charged with the most serious crimes—which are non-probationable—can also be detained for risk to public safety.”
So can the danger standard be used for the enumerated crimes? No one seems sure. This is not an academic question. If Pritzker’s office is wrong, hundreds, if not thousands, of current inmates incarcerated for the enumerated crimes might have to be released once they file bail applications from prison.
Either way, the decision to release someone on bail requires a formal hearing within 48 hours of arrest—far too soon for prosecutors to gather the necessary evidence to prove either danger or a risk of flight. And the blizzard of new bail hearings promises to bring Illinois courts to a standstill.
Law enforcement has criticized other parts of the law that position it firmly within the “defund-the-police” narrative. This raises another possible repercussion that the law’s authors seem not to have considered: for all of this to work, police departments will need to be staffed. The police department in Chicago, the state’s largest city, is already experiencing major attrition and staffing issues since the start of the defund era. Making the job even less attractive for recruits and veterans eligible to retire is not a recipe for public safety.
We already know how this will play out. In New York State, a similar array of criminal-justice reforms has led to deteriorating street conditions, rising crime, and understaffed police departments. The last thing Chicago needs, in particular, is measures that will further erode public safety and confidence (private-sector companies continue to flee the city). Unless this reform is itself reformed, the SAFE-T Act will make everything worse in Illinois.
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