After the SAFE-T Act, what’s next for criminal justice reform in Illinois?

Injustice Watch hosted a virtual town hall with public officials Wednesday night to discuss the massive criminal justice reform bill passed earlier this year by the Illinois legislature — and the road ahead for criminal justice reform in Illinois.

The event featured Illinois State Sen. Robert Peters, D-Chicago, and Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell Jr., who were instrumental in the passage of the Illinois Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today Act, which Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law in February. The SAFE-T Act ends the use of cash bail, puts stricter limits on police use of force, and allows judges to override sentencing minimums in some cases, among many other provisions.

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The town hall was moderated by Injustice Watch Editor-in-Chief Adeshina Emmanuel and Executive Director Juliet Sorensen, who asked questions submitted by community organizations ahead of time and attendees at the event.

Peters, who is chair of the Senate Black Caucus, was a community organizer and political director for Reclaim Chicago and The People’s Lobby before being appointed to the state senate in 2019. He spearheaded several measures in the criminal justice reform package, including the Pretrial Fairness Act, which is the part of the law that ends cash bail and sets other restrictions on pretrial detention.

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Mitchell has been working on criminal justice reform long before Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle appointed him as the Cook County public defender in March. Previously, he was the director of the Illinois Justice Project, a nonprofit policy organization that works to make the justice system more equitable. In that role, he was part of a coalition of organizations that advocated for the Pretrial Fairness Act and other reform legislation.

During the town hall conversation, Peters and Mitchell emphasized that the political process does not end with just passing a bill. There’s a long road ahead when it comes to implementation, accountability, and additional legislation to further advance criminal justice reform.

Here are some of the highlights from the event.

‘Practice eats policy for dinner’

Central to the SAFE-T Act is the elimination of cash bail and other restrictions on pretrial detention, which is based on years of research showing that pretrial detention leads to longer sentences and worse outcomes, particularly for Black and Latinx defendants. That portion of the bill doesn’t go into effect until January 2023, but Sorensen asked the speakers what barriers might prevent the bill from being fully implemented.

Creating good public policy is just the starting point, Mitchell said. The harder part is changing the ingrained cultural and systemic practices that made the policy necessary in the first place.

“Practice eats policy for dinner,” Mitchell said. “But to get better practice, we need to change the policy.”

Mitchell said the bill includes data collection requirements, which will help the public and the media hold system stakeholders accountable for implementing the SAFE-T Act.

The Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts is tasked with creating a Pretrial Practices Data Oversight Board, which will include representatives from criminal justice agencies from across the state and produce public data reports about pretrial detention and outcomes.

Still, it will fall to supporters of the bill, the media, and the general public to ensure that the law is being implemented as intended, Mitchell said.

“Let’s never forget that it was organizing that built this bill,” he said. “It was organizing that forced the legislators’ hands.” He said the same type of organizing is necessary to hold legislators and political leaders accountable for implementing the reform package.

Opposition is still a threat

Within weeks after the SAFE-T Act was signed into law, law enforcement groups such as the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police — which said the bill would “endanger communities” and “embolden criminals” — began working with lawmakers to try to scale back some parts of the law.

With a long lead-up time to implementation, opponents of the bill have ample time to try to remove parts of the law that they don’t like. Peters said Wednesday he wouldn’t be surprised if opponents also use the SAFE-T Act to target politicians who supported the bill in next year’s elections.

Peters said the groups opposing reform are “committed to status-quo ‘tough-on-crime’ policies” that he said have proven to be ineffective and don’t actually improve public safety. Several times Wednesday he referred to “Willie Horton-esque” rhetoric that opponents of bail reform have used to sink similar laws in other states.

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Peters alleges that police and conservatives bashing the reforms, including the "Pretrial Fairness Act" that would end cash bail in Illinois, are using “Willie Horton-style scare tactics.”

For example, New York passed a law in 2019 eliminating cash bail for a range of offenses, but within days after it went into effect, newspapers, police unions, and politicians began attacking the bill for allegedly leading to an uptick in crime. Lawmakers rolled back portions of the bill just a few months later.

Peters and Mitchell both said they’ve been confronted recently by people who claimed that ending cash bail has led to a rise in crime in Chicago and around the state — despite the fact that the provisions eliminating cash bail don’t go into effect for more than a year.

“It is the traditional, reactionary way on which we report on justice issues and legal issues that will also be something that we’ll have to worry about,” Mitchell said. “We’ll just have to be strong and realize that the vast majority of people who are in the system are harmed by our overreliance on pretrial incarceration and are harmed by how much money we pull out of communities that need it the most through the payment of money bonds.”

Opportunities for future criminal justice reform

The town hall audience and community groups who submitted questions ahead of time were as interested in what isn’t in the SAFE-T Act as they were in what is.

The Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project, a nonprofit group that provides classes for incarcerated people, asked why the reforms in the law weren’t applied retroactively. For example, a provision in the SAFE-T Act changes the felony murder law, so that people can no longer be charged with murder if someone else kills someone during the course of a felony, such as an armed robbery or burglary. But that provision only applies to future cases and doesn’t help people who are already in prison.

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“Isn’t it the responsibility of present politicians to correct for the mistakes of past politicians?” PNAP asked in a presubmitted question. “And doesn’t that mean that all reform legislation should be retroactive so as to provide relief to people who have been subjected to overly long sentences based on now-discredited beliefs?”

Mitchell said many people have been fighting for changes to the criminal code to apply retroactively, but there are many groups, including the association of states attorneys from across Illinois, who have fought it “tooth and nail.”

“If we pass something now, it should apply to everybody who’s still there who is serving sentences currently,” Mitchell said.

Peters said he also wants to see changes to the criminal code applied retroactively, “but we just don’t actually have the power yet.”

Still, he sees opportunities for additional criminal justice reform legislation in the future that will help people who are currently in prison. He said state lawmakers should pass legislation that provides paths for people serving long sentences from the tough-on-crime era to get out of prison sooner. He’s currently working on a bill that would reintroduce parole for people serving long prison sentences. He also wants to push the governor’s office to use his executive powers more often to commute sentences and grant pardons.

“I would actually say there is a greater opportunity for progressive pieces of legislation to get done in Springfield than there are in city hall right now,” Peters said.

Peters said the reality of passing legislation is confronting what political power progressive lawmakers hold and what they can actually get passed. He said the key is to continue organizing and building power to make breakthroughs that lead to greater change in the system.

That won’t be easy. Part of the problem, Mitchell said, is the mindset that a lot of Americans feel comfortable placing an individual in prison for a long period of time.

“The data is pretty clear that long sentences don’t improve community safety outcomes,” Mitchell said. “But the issue is the politics of it and can we get out legislators to the point where they’re able to say, ‘Enough is enough,’ and ‘I’m not going to stand for somebody being put into prison for 30 or 40 years.’”

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