‘Heal our communities’: SAFE-T Act sponsors, advocates rally for pretrial fairness

Published: Nov. 16, 2022 at 6:21 PM CST
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SPRINGFIELD (WGEM) - More than 400 advocates and stakeholders rallied inside the Illinois Capitol Wednesday to defend the pretrial fairness portion of the SAFE-T Act. Many Republicans want to see the law repealed, but sponsors say they must push forward with the plan to eliminate cash bail in Illinois.

Lawmakers have already left Springfield and won’t be back to address the SAFE-T Act changes until after Thanksgiving. However, that didn’t stop advocates from making their voices heard in the Capitol rotunda. Many people held signs stating “Freedom shouldn’t have a price tag” and “What is the price of freedom?”

“What do we want? Pretrial fairness,” the crowd shouted. “When do we want it? Now.”

Community organizers and faith leaders from across the state say many Black and brown people are incarcerated before trial, and their families don’t have the money to get them out. Pastor Norma Patterson from Good Shepherd of Faith in East St. Louis said the current cash bail system hurts people who have no reason to be locked up.

“They don’t tell them when it’s time to go to court. They just keep them in jail and that is insane,” Patterson said. “It’s criminal to do that to a person.”

Sponsors, advocates, and stakeholders say the current cash bail system doesn’t keep communities safe. They argue that the Pretrial Fairness Act was not a last-minute change to the SAFE-T Act legislation in 2021 because people spent months working on the language. Many feel the elimination of cash bail will be a victory for racial and economic justice.

Rev. Violet Johnicker from the Brooke Road Church in Rockford says the implementation date shouldn’t be pushed back beyond Jan. 1. She said the status quo has been an injustice for far too long.

“So many people are awaiting trial right now, sitting in jail just because they can’t afford to pay money bond,” Johnicker said. “A judge has already made a determination that they are safe enough to return to the community by setting their bond at any amount at all. The further that this gets delayed or pushed back, the longer that injustice would continue.”

Democratic sponsors continue to face intense pushback from Republican lawmakers and more than 60 state attorneys who are fighting against the Pretrial Fairness Act language in court. Legislative Black Caucus members said Republican operatives wasted millions of dollars spreading misinformation and racist attacks through TV ads and fake newspapers before the primary and general elections.

“While opponents were committed to finding ways to make people scared, we were doing the work to make people safe,” said Rep. Kam Buckner (D-Chicago).

Many people participating in the rally said they were disappointed but not surprised to see attacks against the SAFE-T Act on social media over the past few months. They stressed that many of those attacks were racist and untrue.

Advocates say the General Assembly cannot allow opponents to change the bill language in such a way that it would take effect as an unrecognizable law. Briana Payton with the Chicago Community Bond Fund said gutting the pretrial fairness language would take away from the original goals of the SAFE-T Act.

“That would be a slap in the face to the communities who fought and were in the streets and put their bodies and freedom on the line for this movement,” Payton said. “It would be a slap in the face to everyone who has organized and advocated for years for this change.”

Sponsors and advocates said they are willing to engage in good-faith negotiations before the veto session ends. Still, they stressed that the Pretrial Fairness Act must be implemented and intact on Jan. 1. Advocates for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault were at the negotiating table for over a year before lawmakers passed the initial language in 2021. Vicky Smith, CEO of the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said victims of crime will be safer under the Pretrial Fairness Act.

“Courts will need to do more than check a bank account to determine if someone is too dangerous to the community to be released,” Smith said. “I look forward to seeing our justice systems deliver justice more evenly.”

Sen. Robert Peters (D-Chicago) said the criminal justice system should never be based on how much money someone has in their pocket.

“I think one of the issues that happened for quite some time is that more people focused on trying to repeal the SAFE-T Act or gut the SAFE-T Act, and they didn’t engage in an authentic and fair manner when it comes to what is going to happen with this bill,” Peters said.

People speaking during the rally stood in front of a large handmade poster that stated “Protect the Pretrial Fairness Act - Heal our communities.” That message was personal for many advocates meeting with lawmakers throughout the day.

“Especially for people of faith like me, this really is a moral issue to make sure that we’re caring for people living in poverty, and community safety is the standard determining whether people are released or not,” Johnicker said.

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