By Charles Selle
PUBLISHED: January 31, 2024 at 12:50 p.m. | UPDATED: January 31, 2024 at 7:51 p.m.

Going into the second month of a new year, we also mark the fifth month Illinois courts have maneuvered with the controversial SAFE-T Act. There were some doubts how the key provision of the act — the end of cash bail — would work.

It seems in Lake County, goals of the new procedures in effect since September are being accomplished responsibly. Admittedly, I was one of the doubters.

I was not alone in thinking that no longer requiring defendants to post a cash bond as a condition of pretrial release would be a disaster. Most of the state’s attorneys in the 102 Illinois counties opposed the measure, and sued to stop it from becoming law.

Even some judges are somewhat frustrated by some of the nuances of the new law, like not detaining defendants charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Their hands may be tied by the legislature, but they appear to be coping.

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled, in a 5-2 decision, the law was legal and the Land of Lincoln became the first state to eliminate cash bail. The argument in favor of it was one of equity: Rich people can make bond, poor people can’t.

From a cursory examination of defendants indicted by Lake County grand juries the past few months, those who authorities consider dangers to the community at large are remaining in custody, or what is now known as “pretrial detention.”

Others accused of committing “less-serious” crimes — burglary, theft, driving under the influence — have been released without having to post a cash bond for under the new law, some offenses are not detainable.

Unlike his colleagues across Illinois, one state’s attorney who wholeheartedly was behind the SAFE-T Act and the Pre-Trial Fairness Act was Lake County’s Eric Rinehart. The Democrat had this to say after the high court ruled in favor of the law: “Instead of domestic abusers, murderers, and sex offenders using their cash to obtain release, judges can finally hold dangerous individuals prior to trial.

“We can finally begin to live up to the ideal that access to money should not lead to different justice systems for different defendants,” he added. “This safety-based system, as opposed to wealth-based system, has worked for decades in our federal courts and in Illinois’ juvenile courts.”

Rinehart’s office has been vigilant in filing “petitions for detention” with county judges in order to hold defendants in jail. Most of those petitions, which show “clear and convincing evidence” a detainable offense, have been approved by criminal court judges.

Recent defendants indicted by grand juries and detained in the Lake County jail at the request of assistant state’s attorneys have included weapons violations, violating orders of protection, drug dealing and domestic battery. If prosecutors choose not to file detention petitions when crimes could be detainable, judges can set pretrial release conditions or hold a detention hearing.

Prosecutors also must prove that either the defendant is a threat to a person or the community, or is a flight risk. Instead of merely calling for bail, judges have to assess factors each time the case comes up in court before trial to determine whether the defendant is required to be released.

That wrinkle in the law has caused a glut of appeals by detained defendants, according to a Chicago Tribune story by Madeleine Buckley. The appeals have come in such a volume that the Illinois Supreme Court has convened a task force to examine what it called a “dramatic increase” in the number of cases sent to appellate courts. The law allows defendants up to 14 days to appeal a judge’s decision on detention, or other pretrial restrictions.

Judges in the 2nd Appellate Court District sitting in Elgin, which includes Lake, DeKalb, McHenry, Kane and Kendall counties, have seen 190 appeals by defendants, Buckley reported. Statewide, more than half of the 1,300 appeals filed through the end of 2023 came from Downstate jurisdictions. For all of 2022, there were 1,981 criminal appeals, Buckley found.

Surely, there will be further hiccups along the way as county judges and lawyers continue to become more familiar and at ease with the no-bail rules.

Rinehart promised when the SAFE-T Act became law: “We will still jail defendants prior to trial, and the defendants we do hold will be the dangerous weapon offenders, drug traffickers, child molesters, murderers and domestic abusers who will no longer be able to use their own cash — or their accomplice’s cash — as an escape hatch from justice.”

That has proven true in most instances, as those charged with crimes and prove to be threats to county residents have remained in jail thanks to judges and lawyers working together for community safety.

Charles Selle is a former News-Sun reporter, political editor and editor. [email protected]
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