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Police and Prosecutors Warn Consequences of Ending Cash Bail

Brown County, Ill., officials and justice system officers are voicing concerns over a change to the Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equality-Today Act that would do away with the state’s cash bail system.

(TNS) — Brown County, Ill., officials are joining a growing litany of justice system and law enforcement representatives taking a stand against a change that in a few months will do away with a cash bail system in Illinois.

It's a move they say will have "disastrous consequences for the entire state" by putting community safety at risk.

The hand-wringing over the Pretrial Fairness Act, a provision of the massive Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today Act — commonly known as the SAFE-T Act — is not necessarily new. Supporters contend the cash bail system creates inequalities for poorer defendants, especially among the Black, Latino and minority communities. Detractors argue the measure ties the hands of police and prosecutors.

Starting Jan. 1, it will be replaced with a system that considers the offense severity, the risk of not appearing in court, and the potential threat to the community if a person is released.

Even before its passage in the early hours of a lame duck state legislative session on Jan. 13, 2021, the act was a source of controversy.

Among other changes in the 750-plus-page SAFE-T Act are significant reforms to the rights of those detained, training and certification for police, changes to standards for use of force, and a requirement that all police departments have body cameras in use by 2025.

Opponents of the act argue the measure was pushed through without the chance to give it necessary review and discussion. Supporters maintain concerns of law enforcement groups have been heard, and the measure has been amended twice to alter the timeframe for some provisions and to clarify language regarding use of force by police.

Yet it's the plan to replace the existing cash-bail system — in which the accused has to post a bond to be released before trial — that continues to raise the most heated discussion.

Brown County State's Attorney Mike Hill, Sheriff Justin Oliver and Mount Sterling Police Chief Brandon Norris say that, while they agree a person's freedom should not depend on their bank account, completely eliminating the current system was "never the answer."

They, like officials in several other mostly downstate counties, are sharing their views, saying the Pretrial Fairness Act is "full of contradictions, ambiguities, and is very poorly drafted."

"The act is so badly written that no two people read it the same way," according to a message shared by the three. "Lawyers across the state are all scratching their heads wondering how the new system is going to work and keep people safe."

Since that time, they said, law enforcement officers, state's attorneys and community safety activists have pointed out to lawmakers the "obvious flaws" in the new law and asked for changes, "but the legislature has done nothing to address the public safety threats the Pretrial Fairness Act created."

"Up until now, it has been our hope that these issues would have been addressed," they said, "but it is clear that no changes to the Pretrial Fairness Act are coming before Jan. 1, so it is our duty to inform the public about what to expect. ... We make this statement not to incite fear, but to educate the public on the reality coming Jan. 1. When someone commits a crime in Illinois, that person will not be held in jail, absent extreme circumstances."

The 1,800-word statement shared by the three in Brown County has been posted on social media sites by several others, including Schuyler County Sheriff Bill Redshaw.

The change will require that, unless prosecutors can present "clear and convincing" evidence that an accused person should be jailed within 48 hours — and even then, for a narrowly defined list of crimes, the accused will be presumed eligible for release until trial.

An Illinois Supreme Court commission that studied the state's pretrial system for two years went so far as to caution against an immediate elimination of cash bail, saying too many counties did not have an adequate framework in place.

"Simply eliminating cash bail at the outset, without first implementing meaningful reforms and dedicating adequate resources to allow evidence-based risk assessment and supervision, would be premature," according to the commission's 2020 report.

"Instead of trying to re-create the wheel, the Illinois legislature could have used successful laws of other states as templates and improved upon them or followed the recommendations of the Illinois Supreme Court," the Brown County officials said. "The legislature's actions are also an exercise in fixing a problem that, for most of the state, does not exist."

They noted that, of the 24 felony and nine misdemeanor cases filed through mid-August of this year in Brown County, only two of those charged were in jail awaiting trial.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker remarked when signing the legislation that it "marks a substantial step toward dismantling the systemic racism that plagues our communities, our state, and our nation and brings us closer to true safety, true fairness and true justice."

State House Republicans have pushed back against the act and tried to rally support to repeal it. Legislation filed Jan. 5, House Resolution 598, has gathered dust in the Judiciary Criminal Committee since March 1.

State Rep. Justin Slaughter, a Chicago Democrat who was instrumental in guiding the Safe-T Act through the legislature, contends those efforts had a "bad stench of racism."

He told Capitol News Illinois, that if it "is a violent, dangerous offense, we certainly want to hold offenders accountable but, at the same time, we want to have an understanding of the root causes of crime and violence."

Among other key provisions of the act are changes to detainee rights, certification standards for peace officers, use-of-force standards, and mandatory use of body cameras by 2025.

(c)2022 the Jacksonville Journal-Courier (Jacksonville, Ill.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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