Covering the Land of Lincoln

Jim Dey | However ill-advised, SAFE-T Act still makes history | Columns

Details, details — but nothing to worry or even think about.

That’s what Democratic legislators said last week as they considered what they variously called “technical” changes and “clarifications” of the SAFE-T Act that, among many other things, abolishes the cash bond system on Jan. 1.

There was, however, more to it. Claims by legislators like state Sen. Ron Peters, D-Chicago, that any changes would be non-substantial was hot air designed to disguise serious legislative malpractice.

To hear supporters speak in public, any criticism of the SAFE-T Act was based on ignorance, lies or racism. Behind the scenes, supporters were negotiating improvements that served their political interests as well as public safety.

Much discussion over the law involved the impending abolition of bond, meaning that criminal defendants will be either released from custody or held until trial.

The drafters of the original law, however, limited the crimes for which defendants could be held mostly to those that were violent and carried mandatory prison sentences. But that left out a whole range of serious offenses that didn’t fall into that narrow category, including arson, kidnapping and second-degree murder.

“The expansion of the detention net is a significant improvement,” said Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz.

But she complained that some forms of burglary still allow outright release and said “we’ll keep our eye on that.”

They also changed the rules by which those currently held in jail on bond will be addressed, preventing what could have been a mass exodus from county jails on Jan. 1.

Democrats dismissed that “exodus” claim as nonsense. But the new rules do more than make “technical” changes.

They establish a rigid time frame by which those currently held can seek release under the new rules or continue to be held on bond. Rietz suggested that some of those currently held might view that as preferable to taking a chance on being denied bond.

The lengthy amendment to the SAFE-T Act was passed on party-line votes — Democrats for and Republicans against.

Opposition by the GOP raised questions because the amended version provides a clear public-safety improvement.

But the GOP obviously decided that the SAFE-T Act was a Democrat-made mess, and they weren’t going to support it after Democrats excluded them from the amendment negotiation process.

Instead, Republicans and Democrats took partisan shots at each other during debate that once again showed the majority party’s contempt for the minority party and the minority’s deep resentment of the majority’s high-handed rule.

State Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, contended that the changes were admissions of serious error by Democrats.

“There are substantive changes that are being made because of the harm, putting the public at risk, as a result of the SAFE-T Act in the first place. So governor (Pritzker), why did you sign the law putting the public at risk in the first place?” he asked.

Democrats mostly ignored the jibes, insisting the changes were minor.

The process by which the SAFE-T Act was passed reflected the usual disgraceful methods legislators use for important laws. The 700-page monstrosity was drafted in secret and passed in the dead of night in January 2021 with no significant review and little debate.

Sloppily written and often ill-conceived, it has required multiple rewrites to avoid calamitous results.

Beyond that, however, it is a major triumph for the Legislative Black Caucus, the driving force behind it.

The SAFE-T Act is still despised by the law enforcement community, and for good reason.

But it is — or soon will be — in full force. Absent court intervention, the SAFE-T Act represents — for good or ill — historic change in Illinois.

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