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Illinois lawmakers OK SAFE-T Act tweaks; plan ends bail

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Democrats who control the Illinois General Assembly approved follow-up clarifications of their watershed criminal justice overhaul Thursday, appeasing critics by adding numerous offenses to a list of crimes that qualify a defendant to remain jailed while awaiting trial.

Senate action followed by the House came on the final day of the Legislature’s fall session and exactly one month before the Jan. 1 effective date of the so-called SAFE-T Act. The act notably changes one fundamental tenet of state jurisprudence by eliminating the posting of a cash bond — a practice long used to ensure the accused appears at trial, but which critics say penalizes the poor.

The goal of the proposal, which still needs the signature of a supportive Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, is to detain dangerous people while they await trial while not locking up those who pose no threat but sit in jail simply because they can’t afford bail, according to proponents.

In the Senate, sponsoring Sen. Robert Peters, a Chicago Democrat, recalled that Atticus Finch, the defense attorney in the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” said that courage is knowing “you’re licked before you begin … but you see it through.”

“We’re seeing it through no matter what,” Peters said. “Illinois on Jan. 1, 2023, will make history — civil rights history.”

Democrats easily put up the 3/5ths majority vote required by the state Constitution to make the plan effective immediately while Republicans could only mock them for having to return repeatedly to make corrections or clarifications.

Emerging after the Minneapolis police beating death of George Floyd in May 2020, the SAFE-T Act sets rigorous new training standards for law enforcement, spells out rules for police use of force in immobilizing troublesome suspects, requires body cameras on all police by 2025 and more.

Much of Thursday’s focus was on sweeping cash bail out the door, following a handful of states that prohibit or restrict it, including California, New Jersey, Nebraska, Indiana and New York.

“We are here because a system wherein somebody’s detention pretrial is determined not based on whether they are a threat to the community, but whether or not they have enough cash to bail out of jail is one that has been deemed manifestly unjust,” said Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, a Democrat from the Chicago suburb of Glenview.

But while Republicans agreed that adding crimes to what the law calls the “detention net” greatly improved matters, they remain worried about the risks of potentially releasing dangerous criminals. They also expressed concerns about the short timeline for judges and prosecutors to prepare for the changes, and what they see as the flight into retirement of law enforcement officers over objectionable parts of the act.

Sen. Steve McClure, a Springfield Republican and former prosecutor, acknowledged the improvements made by Peters and Democratic co-sponsors Sen. Elgie Sims of Chicago and Scott Bennett of Champaign. Among the changes, the clarifying legislation expands the detention net to include forcible felonies and those not eligible for probation, along with those accused of hate crimes and other serious offenses.

But like much of the debate since the SAFE-T Act was approved in the wee-hours finish to a lame-duck session in January 2021, Thursday’s debate was largely over semantics — for instance, burglary.

Republicans said burglary should be included in the detention net, Democrats claimed it already is. During floor debate, Peters pointed out the page and line number, which includes “burglary where there is use of force against another person,” a redefinition of burglary, noted McClure.

“That’s robbery,” McClure replied. “If you go into somebody’s unattached garage, or a business or into somebody’s car, those are all regular burglaries where you’re not threatening the use of force on somebody else.”

Those suspected of such burglaries, when set free, have little reason not to commit another such offense, he said.

Republicans pounced on the repeated changes to the law despite Democrats’ claims that it was solid. Peters’ legislation marks the third so-called “trailer bill” designed to clean up misunderstandings in the past two years.

In the House, Rep. Deanne Mazzochi, a Republican from the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst, took a shot at Chicago Democratic Rep. Justin Slaughter, who during debate in April on the plan he sponsored, complained of “the stench of racism coming from that side of the aisle,” identifying Republicans.

“We did object to taking bad utopian legislation that historically has never worked and saying that somehow our practical, common-sense objections to legislative language that we knew was going to create problems … were based on racism was offensive,” Mazzochi said.

Another change sets up a timeline after New Year’s so that those incarcerated this month may request hearings to be eligible for the new process and perhaps be released. Priority is to be given to low-level nonviolent offenders.

The SAFE-T Act legislation is HB1095.

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