Historic Illinois Bill Stalled in Lower Courts


photo courtesy of the AP

Incumbent Governor J.B. Pritzker and challenger Darren Bailey debate at the campus of Illinois State University during the 2022 election.

Caspar Dowdy, Editor-in-chief

Illinois would have made history by being the first state to eliminate cash bail if the SAFE-T Act had gone into effect as planned on Jan. 1. But Kankakee County’s Judge Thomas Cunnington, acting on a combination of more than 60 lawsuits, issued a ruling on Dec. 28 that declared the cash bail portion of the act unconstitutional.

Shortly after, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul announced that his office would try to appeal the court’s decision.

“We look forward to mounting a robust defense of the constitutionality of the law and ensuring that it goes into effect across the state,” he said in a statement.

While Illinois Democrats have promised to continue supporting the bill, other lawmakers have celebrated the decision to postpone eliminating cash bail. Senator Darren Bailey, who attempted a run for governor in 2022, said the act “didn’t pass the test” in his praise of Cunnington’s ruling.

“I spent two years arguing the fact that this was indeed unconstitutional. This is a victory for law enforcement. This is a victory for the State’s Attorneys that stuck their necks out and put them on the line to say something’s not right here,” Bailey said. “This is a victory in our judicial system.”

The Illinois Black Caucus began crafting the bill after the protests following the 2020 murder of George Floyd, and when the legislature convened in January 2021, the bill passed. Since its passing, critics have questioned the bill, often for how quickly it was constructed and its potentially contradictory language.

A movement across the state, led by conservative lawmakers, raised concerns that eliminating cash bail would be unsafe for Illinois, with Bailey famously comparing the SAFE-T Act to the horror movie “The Purge.” Governor J.B. Pritzker denied these fears, saying that the act would still keep “murderers and domestic abusers, violent criminals” in jail, but the court would take a more compassionate approach to the pretrial process.

“[We’re] making sure that we’re also addressing the problem of a single mother who shoplifted diapers for her baby, who is put in jail and kept there for six months because she doesn’t have a couple of hundred dollars to pay for bail…” Pritzker said. “Are there changes, adjustments that need to be? Of course. And there have been adjustments made and there will continue to be. Laws are not immutable.”

Other provisions in the bill — namely those that restricted the use of force by police officers and expanded the use of body cameras — went into effect with the start of 2023, but the future of cash bail remains up for debate.

The Cook County Public Defender’s Office released a statement condemning the lawsuit, which sought to stall the act two years after it had been passed. The statement expressed hope that Illinois could become a “beacon for our nation” in reforming criminal justice.

“We are confident that the Supreme Court will swiftly reverse the lower court finding and confirm the constitutionality of the Pretrial Fairness Act,” the statement read. “In the meantime, we are grateful that the court is providing uniform guidance to courts across the state.”