Editorial: First step in fixing the SAFE-T Act? Leave partisan pettiness at the door.

Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Illinois’ embattled SAFE-T Act is a prime example of well-intentioned legislation hijacked by petty politics, emanating from both sides of the aisle.

The legislation ambitiously aims to make criminal justice in Illinois more equitable and law enforcement more accountable. Its length — 700-plus pages — reflects its scope.

And yet, despite the act’s volume and weighty mission, Democrats who control Springfield put the measure on a rocket sled through the House and Senate in January 2021, leaving Republicans little time to read, process and debate the bill. After middle-of-the-night passage in the Senate, the legislation sped to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk. He signed it and — whoosh! — it became law.

Since then, Republicans have been just as guilty of partisan gamesmanship. They ginned up reams of misinformation about what the SAFE-T Act does and doesn’t do.

GOP gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey likened the law to “the Purge,” a reference to a series of dystopian movies in which all crime in America is legalized for 12 hours. State Rep. Jim Durkin of Western Springs, who will step down as House Republican leader following the GOP’s dismal showing in the midterms, wrote in a September op-ed we published that the new law will “give drug cartels free rein on Illinois’ streets.” Conservative-funded fake newspaper handouts and mailings screamed that, with the law’s switch to a cashless bail system, “it’s going to be literally the end of days.”

“The sky is falling” was a lousy tactic that didn’t work for Illinois Republicans in the midterms, an indication that perhaps millions of voters didn’t believe their histrionics about murder suspects suddenly flooding the streets on Jan. 1, the day the cashless provision of the new law takes effect.

Nevertheless, even Democrats acknowledge the law needs adjustments, which is why the SAFE-T Act will become a focal point of the General Assembly’s veto session that began Tuesday.

For lawmakers to get it right this time, here’s what must happen:

· There’s a glaring need to revise which defendants can be released on their own recognizance. We have previously cited concerns state Sen. Sara Feigenholtz, a Chicago Democrat, has raised that repeat offenders and individuals accused of a violent crime while also in possession of a gun can still be granted pretrial release, under current SAFE-T language. Now’s her chance to get fellow lawmakers on board with changing this provision so that its focus is primarily on defendants accused of nonviolent crimes.

The purpose of switching to cashless bail is to instill equity into a system that up until now was grossly unfair to defendants charged with nonviolent crimes and locked up in pretrial detention solely because they lacked the means to post bail. That’s an important and necessary linchpin to the SAFE-T Act. But the legislation needs to strike a balance between ensuring that those defendants are treated equitably by the system, and ensuring violent-crime defendants don’t pose a palpable risk to their alleged victims and the public at large.

· The way the law is crafted now, prosecutors have to prove that a defendant is planning to intentionally flee prosecution in order for a judge to order that person’s pretrial detention. Prosecutors cannot solely rely on a defendant’s previous history of not showing up in court as the basis for the judge’s determination that the person is a flight risk. This provision needs fixing. Previous history of not showing up in court is a strong indicator of what that defendant will do again. And requiring prosecutors to prove intent to flee is an unrealistic ask.

· Before the SAFE-T Act, if someone was trespassing on your property, you could call police and have them arrested on a misdemeanor charge. Under the new law, the most police can do is hand the offender a ticket, if that person doesn’t pose a threat to the community. There’s no mechanism to get the offender to leave. This provision needs revision. Officers should have the discretion to size up the situation, and if warranted, make an arrest.

· Another troubling provision of the law allows defendants to ask the judge to compel the alleged victim to appear at a detention hearing, a proceeding in which the judge determines whether to detain the defendant ahead of trial. Especially in cases of domestic violence, sexual assault or child abuse, appearances at pretrial proceedings can add to the trauma the victim has endured. It’s certainly possible, perhaps even likely, that the victim will end up testifying during the trial. But needlessly heaping more anguish on that person by making them appear at a pretrial hearing doesn’t make sense.

This isn’t a complete list of fixes needed for the SAFE-T Act, but it’s a good start.

The legislation’s mission is a worthy one. It shores up police accountability, which is necessary for communities, particularly predominantly minority neighborhoods, to regain trust in law enforcement. It addresses the injustice of low-income defendants charged with lesser crimes languishing in pretrial detention, while wealthier suspects avoid pretrial detention because they can afford bail, even if the crimes they are charged with are violent offenses.

But a worthy mission has to be backed up by strong, sound and thoughtful implementation. That takes time, debate, collaboration and consensus.

State lawmakers can get this right, if they set aside partisan pettiness and make equitable, efficient criminal justice reform their singular aim.

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