Have you heard? “The Purge” is coming.
No, actually it’s not. But the midterm elections are coming in less than two months, which has led to a viral snowstorm of misinformation online and in fake newspaper handouts about a bill signed by Gov. JB Pritzker that ends cash bail.
“Chicago is living ‘The Purge,’” Pritzker’s Republican challenger, Darren Bailey, told reporters last week, referencing a horror movie franchise in which a dystopian America celebrates a national holiday that legalizes all crime for 12 hours.
Bailey is a state senator and prosperous farmer from downstate Xenia who recently rented an apartment in the John Hancock Building to “immerse” himself in the culture of urban life. “With his SAFE-T Act,” Bailey continued, “JB is set to unleash the purge in neighborhoods all over Illinois as of Jan. 1.”
Hardly. We found much of the 700-page Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today law, known as the SAFE-T Act, to be laudable and worth pursuing, despite the questionable speed and lack of transparency with which the bill was rushed to passage, partly in the dead of night in the waning hours of the early 2021 state legislative session.
Its most contentious section is the Pretrial Fairness Act, which eliminates cash bail in all pretrial release decisions. It is scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, 2023.
The Legislature’s Black Caucus authored the ban on cash bail because too many defendants awaiting trial are kept behind bars not because they pose an apparent flight risk or danger to the community, but simply because they can’t afford to make bail.
Justice if you can afford it? That’s not how our system is supposed to work, even though in many cases that tends to be the grim reality.
Mounting episodes of such unequal treatment also serve to undermine citizens’ faith in the justice system and their willingness to cooperate with law enforcement, ironically in communities struggling with rising violent crime.
The SAFE-T Act aims to reverse those perceptions in sweeping measures, including major changes in police training policies, police accountability, transparency in policing and the rights of detainees and prisoners.
But the benefits of these and other provisions of the bill are more obvious in some cases than others. Law enforcement agencies and prosecutorial associations sounded alarms, which is not surprising. Major changes to an arena as vast and complex as the criminal justice system were shoved through the Legislature with little debate at the end of a legislative session – during a pandemic, no less.
Nevertheless, the worst-case scenarios spread online are essentially myths or, at best, misleading exaggerations.
For example, all murder suspects will not be released from county jails on New Year’s Day and the law will not defund the police.
Nor does the act make some violent crimes, including murder and homicide, “non-detainable offenses” prior to trial, which would allow violent criminals to be released without bail.
In fact, pretrial release still can be denied by a judge when a defendant poses a flight risk or a “specific, real and present threat to any person in the community.”
Significantly, pretrial release cannot occur until a judge considers the severity of the case. That’s how the system works now, except for those who continue to be held simply because they cannot afford to make bail.
Some other areas call for further examination and debate. Illinois House GOP Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs complained that defendants will be able to compel a victim to appear at a detention hearing, a proceeding that will replace a traditional bond hearing.
He reasonably questions what purpose it would serve to force, for example, a victim of a beating or a child who has been sexually assaulted to appear at a detention hearing.
After he raised that question at a news conference, the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation fired back over Twitter, citing an excerpt of the statute to argue that the Pretrial Fairness Act actually makes it more difficult for defense attorneys to call victims to the witness stand.
That’s only one of many controversial provisions that, while serving a useful purpose, cry out for clarity.
Bailey and some of his Republican colleagues have called for repealing the bill, which is not likely to happen, given the current Democratic control of the governor’s office and the General Assembly.
But Democrats have just as much of an interest in tweaking this legislation to clarify gray areas. The SAFE-T Act represents important reform, but it only works if its provisions are crystal-clear and firewalled from misinterpretation.