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Ill. gov. signs amendment to criminal justice overhaul weeks before cash bail set to end

The changes outline specific criteria for judges to determine whether defendants should be incarcerated while awaiting trial

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs a sweeping criminal justice reform bill into law during a ceremony at Chicago State University on Feb. 22, 2021.

Photo/Ashlee Rezin Garcia of Chicago Sun-Times via AP

By Dan Petrella
Chicago Tribune

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Tuesday signed into law changes to a controversial criminal justice overhaul that will eliminate cash bail beginning Jan. 1, making good on assurances he gave during his successful reelection campaign that the measure would be tweaked.

Democrats in the General Assembly approved the changes last week during their final session of the year, while Republicans continued to decry the law as a threat to public safety. The GOP made its opposition to the law one of the main themes of the just-completed campaign season in which voters rejected all GOP candidates for statewide office and left the party in superminority status in the legislature.

“I’m pleased that the General Assembly has passed clarifications that uphold the principle we fought to protect: to bring an end to a system where wealthy violent offenders can buy their way out of jail, while less fortunate nonviolent offenders wait in jail for trial,” Pritzker said in a statement Tuesday.

The governor said repeatedly during the campaign that he believed changes to the law, which he signed in early 2021, were necessary, while offering few specifics on what needed to be done.

Unlike his signing of the original measure, known as the SAFE-T Act, in a public ceremony, Pritzker announced Tuesday’s signing in a news release.

The changes to the law, which were approved with the support of victims’ rights groups and without opposition from groups representing law enforcement and prosecutors, clarify the process for shifting from the cash bail system to one that sets out specific criteria for judges to determine whether defendants should be incarcerated while awaiting trial.

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The amendment also clarifies the standards that judges must follow when considering whether a defendant presents a danger to the public, and adds several offenses, among them aggravated robbery, second-degree murder and home invasion, for which judges can detain a defendant if they’re deemed a threat to the community or another person.

Defendants charged with crimes before Jan. 1 will have the option to remain under the old bail system or be moved to the new system. To ease the burden on the court system, the new measure sets out specific time frames for detention hearings for those shifting to the new system.

Those accused of nonviolent offenses must have their hearings within seven days, while those deemed to be a flight risk must appear in court within 60 days. Defendants considered to be a safety threat, such as those accused of murder, sexual assault and other violent crimes, must have a hearing within 90 days.

The measure also seeks to make clear that police can arrest people for misdemeanors such as trespassing that generally require only a ticket, spelling out that arrests can be made if officers believe “the accused poses a threat to the community or any person” or if “criminal activity persists.” An arrest can also be made if the alleged offender has “obvious medical or mental health issues” that pose a risk to their own safety.

The law still faces a legal challenge from about 60 state’s attorneys across Illinois’ 102 counties, including some Democrats, who joined a lawsuit against Pritzker and other top Democrats contending that the passage of the law violated the Illinois Constitution. A Kankakee County judge could issue a ruling on the lawsuit later this month.

While Republicans were unified in opposition of the changes approved last week, they also sought to claim credit for pressuring the majority Democrats to make changes to the original legislation, which has been amended three times since Pritzker signed it in February 2021.

Republicans “appreciate that a lot of our objections to the bill, finally, when they make it into the public domain and you hear from people” were taken into account when making revisions, GOP state Rep. Deanne Mazzochi of Elmhurst, who was narrowly defeated in her reelection bid last month, said during the House debate last week. “But you should be doing a lot more thoughtful policy on the front end.”

“I appreciate you’re trying to put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig,” Mazzochi added.

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