SAFE-T Act criminal justice revisions signed into law by J.B. Pritzker

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Tuesday quietly signed into law revisions to the controversial criminal justice package known as the SAFE-T Act — the vehicle for a no cash-bail system that begins on Jan. 1. 

It was nothing like the very public signing of the original measure in February of 2021 at Chicago State University, where Pritzker smiled broadly and held up a copy of the 764-page criminal justice bill — a measure that prompted dozens of lawsuits and a steady drumbeat of negative TV commercials during the Democratic governor’s heated reelection campaign.

On Tuesday, Pritzker opted not to hold a public ceremony for the SAFE-T trailer measure, which was cleared by Illinois legislators last week during the last day of the veto session. Most of the revisions were described as attempts to clear up misconceptions about the original intent of the legislation.

“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 Tuesday afternoon statement about the signing. 

Gov. J.B. Pritzker holds up the nearly 800-page signed sweeping criminal justice reform bill at Chicago State University on Feb. 22, 2021.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker holds up the nearly 800-page signed sweeping criminal justice reform bill at Chicago State University on Feb. 22, 2021.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

“Advocates and lawmakers came together and put in hours of work to strengthen and clarify this law, uphold our commitment to equity, and keep people safe.” 

A portion of the SAFE-T Act called the “Pre-trial Fairness Act” eliminates cash bail starting Jan. 1. Under the legislation signed into law last year, for those charged after the start of the year, judges would decide who remains locked up while awaiting trial, rather than requiring defendants to pay bail to be released from jail. 

The revisions set up an option for those already in jail to request to be under the new no-cash bail system. Other changes include providing consistency for what prosecutors must show to detain someone on grounds the individual is a threat. It also expands the list of crimes in which someone can be denied pretrial release.

The amendment to the measure also defined “willful flight” to stress that the intent is to detain those who are actively evading prosecution, not someone who simply failed to appear in court. 

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs the criminal justice reform bill into law at Chicago State University in February of 2021 as sponsors and supporters look on.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs the criminal justice reform bill into law at Chicago State University in February of 2021 as sponsors and supporters look on.

During the campaign, Republicans railed on the initial measure. They continued that criticism with the new changes, with many arguing they didn’t have a say in the process. Pritzker and other Democrats pointed out that some Republican states’ attorneys were among those in a working group assembled to figure out which revisions would make it into the amendment. 

Others, including former Republican gubernatorial nominee Darren Bailey claimed the SAFE-T Act would have decriminalized trespassing. 

Bill sponsors said the provision always allowed for police to be able to arrest someone for trespassing — but new language was included in the revisions to “clarify the intent” of the language in the original bill. Police can arrest someone for trespassing if the person poses a threat to the community or any person and if the accused has a medical or mental health issue that poses a risk to their safety.

A legal challenge to the law is still brewing, and it’s unlikely to be resolved by the changes made by lawmakers last week. Oral arguments before a Kankakee County judge are set for Dec. 20.