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Area court officials waiting for direction on SAFE-T Act implementation | Courts-police-fire

URBANA — Area state’s attorneys and judges on Thursday were hoping for direction from the Illinois Supreme Court in the wake of a Kankakee County judge’s ruling that lawmakers exceeded their constitutional authority by abolishing bail in Illinois.

The ruling by Judge Thomas Cunnington, released late Wednesday, means that the 64 counties that filed suit challenging the SAFE-T Act will continue to set bail for individuals charged with crimes after Sunday.

The other counties that did not challenge the act are technically not affected by the ruling and can proceed with the new system under which judges will order defendants either held until trial or released from custody.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul promised a swift appeal of Cunnington’s ruling to the Supreme Court. But that would likely take months just to prepare briefs and schedule arguments.

“It’s not like the Supreme Court can dive into it next month,” observed Douglas County State’s Attorney Kate Watson, who was among those challenging the SAFE-T Act. “It will be business as usual in Douglas County. We believe the correct decision was arrived at, that it was a victory for the Illinois Constitution and crime victims in the community.”

Meantime, officials in counties that did not challenge the act are waiting to see if the Supreme Court will stay Cunnington’s ruling.

“We are ready to go with the Pretrial Fairness Act. It will not be a problem for us,” said Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz, a Democrat who worked with area legislators to amend the portions of the act that she and law enforcement found the most objectionable. “We have forms and processes and have gone through our jail list. Only about 10 percent of those in custody are there on lower-level offenses. We are working with the public defender to get those resolved.”

Rietz said her office and the judiciary are already doing the right thing in terms of setting appropriate bail for defendants perceived to be dangerous.

“We have the right people in custody,” she said. “I don’t think (Cunnington’s ruling) affects what we do or public safety in Champaign County one way or the other. We are doing a good job and will continue to do a good job.”

As of Thursday, there were 317 Champaign County inmates in custody in jail facilities in Urbana and Kankakee, where overflow inmates are being housed. Under the Pretrial Fairness Act, most of them would be detained, Rietz said.

She said it’s likely Raoul will ask for a stay of Cunnington’s ruling while pursuing an appeal to avoid confusion among counties.

“Aurora, for example, covers four different counties, two of which have filed and two of which have not,” she said. “There are other places where it would be extremely chaotic to have two different systems.”

Champaign County Presiding Judge Randy Rosenbaum said since that county did not challenge the SAFE-T Act, he intends for the new no-bail system to start Sunday.

“The best course is to assume that the law will take effect Jan. 1,” he said. “If (the Supreme Court) stops it and says ‘We are not going to let this go forward,’ we would follow suit with whatever they say.”

Vermilion County Presiding Judge Tom O’Shaughnessy, whose county did challenge the law, said he was too waiting to see if the high court gives direction.

“I’m sure the Supreme Court is very busy today,” said O’Shaughnessy, who said he was aware that Justice David Overstreet was traveling this week.

Vermilion County State’s Attorney Jacqueline Lacy, an outspoken critic of the SAFE-T Act, said the ruling means business as usual in her courthouse. And while she was grateful for the ruling, she believes that Cunnington should have declared the entire act unconstitutional.

“We will continue to fight for what we think is right. It should not be political. It’s a public-safety issue,” she said, adding that legislators spent an “awful lot of time protecting defendants and not a lot of time protecting our victims.”

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