Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul on Tuesday acknowledged he has concerns about potential ambiguities in a sweeping criminal justice law that has become a major election year issue, and also spoke of the need to discuss clarifying some provisions, including one that eliminates cash bail, before they take effect Jan. 1.
The law, known as the SAFE-T Act and passed by the Democratic-controlled legislature last year, is intended to address inequities in the justice system that, among other things, leaves many defendants sitting in jail simply because they can’t afford bail.
While Republicans have argued it will empty out jails and lead to increased violence on the streets, the law allows judges to keep defendants behind bars if they are deemed to be a flight risk or danger to the public.
Speaking at a campaign event on Chicago’s South Side, Raoul spoke of the need to have an “ongoing conversation” on what the threshold should be for determining what defendants are a threat to public safety, “whether it’s a specific threat to an individual or a community.”
“There are a number of issues that I think deserve discussion. I’m not going to have the debate about them here at a podium, but I think again like most legislation, we often revisit because we pass legislation that requires a lot of debate,” said Raoul, a former state senator who represented parts of Chicago’s South Side. “We are often clarifying ambiguity or uncertainty in … countless laws. Is the SAFE-T Act worthy of that discussion? It is.”
While opening the door to tweaking the law, Raoul also said he’s confident it leaves enough judicial discretion for lower level crime suspects and that he doesn’t think the bill is too confusing or contradictory.
Supporters of the legislation have struggled to combat misinformation about the reforms that have spread through social media and by some media outlets. Republicans are making the election year argument that the SAFE-T Act shows Democrats, including first-term incumbent Gov. J.B. Pritzker, are weak on crime.
Raoul’s challenger in November, Republican Thomas Devore, has been an outspoken critic of the SAFE-T Act and raised concerns about the flight risk standard during a separate news conference last week.
“There’s a catchall phrase that says ‘Well, what if they’re a high flight risk? We can detain them then.’ The burden of proving that will be significant,” said DeVore. “It’s a catchall that is not going to be applicable, according to most states attorneys that I talked too.”
Sources have told the Tribune that legislators could be weighing some changes to the law’s pretrial fairness provisions during their fall veto session in November, including whether the standards for determining a flight risk need to be changed.
One issue highlighted by opponents is that judges as of Jan. 1 will not be able to use a defendant’s past behavior of repeatedly failing to appear in court as evidence that they could be a flight risk. Instead, prosecutors would be required to prove to a judge that the defendant was planning to flee the jurisdiction.
“Unless (defendants) have a flight ticket out of town, or they tell the police, ‘hey, if I get out, I’m taking off,’ “ it will be difficult to prove someone’s a flight risk,” DuPage County’s Republican State’s Attorney, Robert Berlin, told the Tribune last week.
Raoul on Tuesday said he’s had discussions with Berlin, among others, about ways to address possible ambiguities in the law.
“We’re of different parties, but we’ve long worked on policy together,” Raoul, a Democrat, said of Berlin. “He and I’ve had conversations on how we may have a discussion about clarifying the law through the legislative process, not through the political fear mongering process.”
Those discussions could lead to changes to the law, Raoul said, while adding that he still backs the basic premise of the measure.
“But let’s be clear: The notion that people are held in jail, sometimes longer than what their eventual sentence would be, because they just cannot afford bail, is nonsensical,” he said.
He noted that a defendant who is a “big time gangbanger or drug dealer” and can afford to post bail could now, by taking cash out of the equation, be kept behind bars.
“So if anybody tells me that bail based on cash is what keeps our community safe, I’d say that’s nonsense,” he said.