Advocates defend SAFE-T Act amid conservative backlash


Illustration by Olivia Abeyta.

Conservative campaigns in the 2022 election have made the SAFE-T Act a campaign focus.

Madison Bratley, Assistant Photo Editor

Content Warning: This article has mentions of gun violence and assault

The advertisement opens with a darkened image of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot declaring “the summer of joy” in Chicago. Then, graphic videos of gun violence in the city overcome the screen. The ad urges watchers to “stop Chicago violence from coming to your town” and “vote no on Pritzker.”

The SAFE-T Act, signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in 2021, has become a central issue for conservatives in the Illinois midterm campaign, who say the act will cause “Chicago’s lawlessness” to overtake the suburbs. The measure includes police reforms like requiring body cameras at departments statewide by 2025, as well as expanding detainee rights.

The conservative People Who Play By The Rules Political Action Committee has released multiple ads about the legislation, and Republican candidate for governor Darren Bailey made the law a focus in a gubernatorial debate Friday against Pritzker.

Bailey is particularly critical of the Pretrial Fairness Act, part of the SAFE-T Act. Among other provisions, the act eliminates cash bail by 2023, limiting pretrial detention based on criteria including the defendant’s risk to public safety, flight risk and criminal history instead of financial ability.

“This act is a huge step forward in reducing incarceration that specifically targets People of Color and poor people,” Kareem Butler, pretrial justice fellow of the Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts, said. 

A 2022 report published by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said research “consistently shows” Black and Latine defendants face higher rates of pretrial detention in federal jails and higher bonds than other demographic groups. 

In Illinois, 90% of people in jail have not yet had their trial, according to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.

“We’d be ending wealth-based jailing and restoring the presumption of innocence in the courtroom, which is something that is really under fire and it is not valued under our current system,” Butler said.

Lightfoot, a Democrat, has blamed pretrial release for increasing violence in Chicago, saying those accused of a violent crime “are guilty.” A 2022 study from Loyola University Chicago, however, found an increase in the number of people released from bond court in Cook County did not change city crime rates. 

According to the Civic Federation, about 3.3% of 70,000 people out on pretrial release were charged with a new violent crime or crime against a person, such as assault, and 81.8% were not charged with new offenses while out on pretrial release. 

“There’s really no safety component under the current system,” Butler said. “If the argument is that the current system is safer, individuals charged with very serious felony offenses, if they have access to the wealth, can return to the community.”

Illinois government data shows people who spend three days in jail are 2.5 times more likely to suffer from unemployment within a year. They are also 40% more likely to be rearrested in the future, whether the defendant was eventually convicted or not.

Stephanie Kollmann, policy director of the Children Family Justice Center at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law, said the justice system should be “very careful” about subjecting people to pretrial incarceration.

“It’s really important to make sure that we are using detention in the most limited and targeted way,” Kollmann said. “Looking at how much money you have is a really bad measure of that.” 

Advocacy groups including the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Explotation, The Network: Advocating Against Domestic Violence, the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault have all shown support for the SAFE-T Act. CAASE’s website says the SAFE-T Act allows for more victim input in risk-based assessments. 

Butler said the conservative campaigns against the SAFE-T Act didn’t surprise him, since the act significantly changes the Illinois justice system. 

“There is a lot of political fear-mongering that is happening,” Kollmann said. “Threatening women about safety and (saying) that their safety is in jeopardy has sort of spillover effects, especially with men and their families who are also voters who want to see themselves as protectors.”

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Twitter: @MadisonBratley

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