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Miller: Illinois counties seek more state funds to offset SAFE-T Act costs

Hannah Meisel’s recent report for Capitol News Illinois included a line that jumped out at me: “Per state law – which hasn’t been updated since 1949 – only counties with 35,000 or more residents are required to set up offices of public defender.”

According to information posted on numerous websites (Illinois Demographics, Wikipedia and World Population Review), a majority of 62 out of 102 Illinois counties have fewer than 35,000 residents. Fifty counties have less than 25,000 residents. Another 31 have less than 15,000 inhabitants, 15 have less than 10,000 people and 7 don’t even have 5,000 residents. For perspective, a single Chicago ward contains about 54,000 people. Only 24 counties have at least that much population.

All counties in the state are required by the Illinois Constitution to have sheriffs, county clerks and treasurers. State statutes heap on many more responsibilities, as do local county ordinances.

We’ve long seen advocates calling for school district consolidation and township elimination. But the SAFE-T Act’s implementation highlights how the state should probably start a conversation about how dozens of small Illinois counties can effectively govern in a modern society.

A recent WBEZ story noted that Cass County has “one attorney and one resident judge handling all the criminal cases.” Cass is just northwest of Sangamon County and has a bit more than 13,000 residents.

Meisel’s story profiled a public defender who does part-time work in two counties: Gallatin and Hamilton. The combined population of those two counties is about 13,000, according to her report.

The counties want more money from the state to implement the new law. Public defenders outside of Cook County received $10 million in this fiscal year’s budget, which doesn’t seem like much.

I don’t know what the answer is here, but I do know that local mandates are regularly approved at the Statehouse without taking the population of most Illinois counties into consideration.

And the lack of resources in Illinois’ plethora of tiny counties is only one problem. There will be other problems with the new SAFE-T Act.

A prosecutor will decide not to ask a judge to keep someone in custody who has been busted for a detainable offense, or a judge will overrule a prosecutor who wants someone detained, or a loophole will be exploited and that suspect will then go out and commit another crime and maybe hurt someone, or worse.

This sort of thing is not new, of course. A small minority, but still a significant number of people who bailed out of jail wound up going back after committing more offenses. But that history may easily be lost in the debate as bad things happen under the new law.

Controversy arose on the very first day of the new law when WTTW reported that the Cook County state’s attorney’s office decided not to ask for the detention of the very first person given a hearing. The suspect was accused of pepper spraying four Chicago police officers and sending three of them to the hospital, and is facing four counts of aggravated battery to a police officer.

“This highlights the misplaced priorities of Illinois’ criminal justice system when the prosecutor prioritizes the freedom of a violent offender over the safety of those police officers dedicated to protecting and serving our communities,” said Senate Republican Leader John Curran in response.

Elsewhere, however, prosecutors used the new law to keep people behind bars who likely would’ve previously walked away.

McLean County State’s Attorney Erika Reynolds has been a staunch critic of the new law, but her office persuaded a judge to keep a man locked up who was accused of possessing a gun as a felon, a consortium of Public Radio stations reported. The man was arrested before the SAFE-T Act officially took effect, and his public defender wanted him charged under the old statute so he could potentially bond out of custody. The judge disagreed and the man remained in custody.

Proponents just haven’t focused on how the SAFE-T Act will make it easier in many cases to keep physically dangerous people locked up without bail.

But no mere law can eliminate human error or prevent all unforeseen circumstances. As those cases emerge, we can probably expect legislative fights over whether to expand the list of detainable offenses.

Those battles could wind up being the new version of the old legislative tradition of annually enhancing criminal penalties, which proceeded unabated for decades until more progressive members finally put a stop to it.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and

Rich Miller

Rich Miller

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and