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Illinois lawmakers to decide whether to end cash bail | Main stories

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — One of Illinois’ most comprehensive — and controversial — criminal justice laws is slated for another purge after being both honored and vilified during the fall election campaign. It’s lawmakers’ last chance to hammer out details before the bulk of the package takes effect Jan. 1.

When lawmakers return to Springfield next week, the focus of the SAFE-T Act debate will be a a key position to stop the cash bail — a lengthy process that ensures defendants will be brought back to court if released pending trial. Rights advocates say poor people must sit in jail awaiting trial because they can’t post bail, but wealthy defendants can pay their way to pretrial release.

The massive proposal is likely to undergo other tweaks, as it has done twice since lawmakers approved it in January 2021. But the lead negotiator, Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, did not say what specific issues would be addressed.

“There were some challenges that were included in the company space. A lot of those things are not true,” said the deputy majority leader from Peoria. “But there are some points that we need to further strengthen and clarify the original intent of the bill.”

Advocates argue that bail is a punishment for poverty, allowing those with enough money to pay their way to freedom before trial and those with less means to sit in jail.

In a gubernatorial race won by Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who lost to challenger Darren Bailey, a Republican senator, promised to repeal the law and argued that ending cash bail means a “revolving door” for prisons across the state.

But defense attorneys object that judges retain discretion. Not everyone will be released to court. A judge may decide that the suspect poses too much of a danger or that the crime and background of the accused warrants detention.

The section of the law that ends bail goes into effect on January 1. Changes to the law made after July 1, which are to take effect immediately, must be approved by a three-fifths majority. While Democrats have enough in both chambers to succeed, whipping up votes is a different story.

Different lawmakers see parts of the law that give them pause. La. Sean Ford, for example, fears that problems could arise from changes that would allow police to confront violators with a misdemeanor fine instead of an arrest. In other words, if you call the police because someone is on your property without permission and you call the police, the police can issue a ticket but not remove the trespasser.

“If they’re not welcome, they shouldn’t be left on public or private property,” said Ford, a Chicago Democrat. “Because what’s going on? You’ll see the homeowner take matters into his own hands. You will see people killing people. They’ll say, “Don’t even call the police.”

The SAFE-T Act, which is part of the groundbreaking “four pillars” of changes introduced by the Legislative Black Caucus, has been met with both suspicion and praise. The new legislation — inspired by the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 — has fueled conspiracy theories about the Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID-19 pandemic. The House’s passage of the bill early in the morning at the end of the session did not help his credibility.

Police accountability advocates approved the provision, which would also require all officers to wear body cameras by 2025 to protect members of the public as well as themselves.

Sean Mulcahy of the Illinois Prison Project, which reviews clemency petitions, advocates reducing the number of people wrongfully incarcerated and represents those released to rehabilitate them, applauded the cell provision and other accountability measures. The non-profit organization is advocating changing the triple sentence law by raising the minimum age to 21 for a person convicted of a felony; The 20-year-old “three strikes” law requires defendants to be sentenced to life in prison after three crimes.

Improved and centralized data on deaths in jails and prisons across the state will help the John Howard Association monitor prison conditions and inmate welfare, said executive director Jennifer Wollen-Katz. And she approves a modified system of mandatory supervised release — known colloquially as parole — that puts resources on par with supervision. She said it would also reduce the amount of time former inmates have to spend on supervised release.

That the law has continued to be debated, reassessed and changed in the nearly two years since it was passed is no surprise to Gordon-Booth.

“It shows what happens with any major reform legislation …. You always have to go back and make those tweaks and changes,” Gordon-Booth said. “But we’re also going to have to gather information and start working with people, because these systems don’t work like a light switch.”


Follow political writer John O’Connor at https://twitter.com/apoconnor


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