Confronted by GOP critics and confused constituents, Democrats made fixes to their sweeping criminal justice law – Chicago Tribune


SPRINGFIELD — After months of blistering attacks from Republicans as well as some criticism from members of their own party, Democratic lawmakers came together during the final legislative session of the year to approve changes aimed at clarifying their controversial criminal justice overhaul.

The changes were approved along party lines just a month before Illinois is set to eliminate cash bail for criminal defendants. It marked the third time lawmakers have approved amendments to the policy, known as the SAFE-T Act, since Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed it into law in early 2021.

While Democrats preserved and expanded supermajorities in the Illinois General Assembly and held on to every statewide office in the Nov. 8 election, the party struggled to shake off the weak-on-crime narrative that Republicans pushed in making crime their top issue in the election. In the end, voters didn’t buy it, but that didn’t stop Democrats from making changes to the law they had promised were coming as they confronted GOP criticism.

“Certainly Nov. 9, when you’re looking at those results, it would have been easy to say, ‘Oh, we got a mandate, and we won and you didn’t, and we’re going to keep this as is,’ ” state Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth of Peoria, who has been leading criminal justice negotiations for House Democrats since early this year, said after the measure was approved Thursday night.

“But that would not have been right, because we knew that based on our work, regardless of what happened on Nov. 8, that we needed to tighten some of those things to be in alignment with the intent of the law,” she said.

State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth speaks with members of the House before the chamber passed changes to the controversial criminal justice law known as the SAFE-T Act at the Illinois Capitol building on Dec. 1, 2022, in Springfield.

Gordon-Booth and other proponents of the law — part of a massive legislative package pushed by the General Assembly’s Black Caucus and approved early last year in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police — say it is designed to rectify long-standing inequities in the criminal justice system, including the practice of keeping many defendants in jail before trial only because they can’t afford to make bail.

The tweaks were largely meant to clear up confusion — some of it sowed by campaign year misinformation — over issues including the process for shifting to the new detention system on Jan. 1 and the ability of police officers to arrest people charged with misdemeanors like trespassing.

The changes, however, also addressed fears that the end of cash bail will let violent people loose on the streets by expanding the list of felonies for which defendants can be detained if the state can show they’re a danger to the public.

Responding to campaign attacks as they sought second terms, both Pritzker and Democratic Attorney General Kwame Raoul repeatedly said the law needed clarification, while never wavering in defense of the concept of eliminating cash bail.

While not a single Republican voted for the latest amendment to the law, they took credit for provoking it with a drumbeat of criticism over the past two years.

“There would be no changes made without pressure from Republicans,” state Sen. Steve McClure, a Springfield Republican and former Sangamon County prosecutor, said after a heated debate Thursday on the Senate floor. “Those were not just minor changes in that legislation. There were some very big changes to the forcible felonies that can be detained.”

State Sen. Steve McClure speaks during a Senate Executive Committee hearing regarding the controversial criminal justice law known as the SAFE-T Act.

Outgoing House Republican Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs, another former prosecutor, agreed that the GOP had an impact on the Democrats’ decision to make changes. But he said that even with the clarification, he still believes the SAFE-T Act undermines the duties of law enforcement.

“I do believe our voices and the analysis that we did, and we articulated them, made the Democrats think that, ‘What are we doing?’” Durkin said. “I think they realize that this was a bad product a year and a half ago.”

Durkin noted that even some Democrats have criticized the law.

“What prompted them to do this is obviously to try to clean up the mess that they created a year and a half ago. But it doesn’t go far enough,” he said, adding that the repeated efforts to revise the law are “not a sign of a good bill.”

“And I think that they are continuing to be told ‘this is not right,’ ” Durkin said.

While some Democrats acknowledged there was confusion among their constituents over the law, others said that the changes made in the amendment were prompted by concerns raised by police, prosecutors and victims’ rights advocates, not by the GOP’s rhetoric and the misinformation in political mailers masquerading as newspapers.

They point out that various law enforcement organizations, some of the most vocal critics of the original law, participated in the negotiations on the amendment and took a neutral stance on the final legislation after opposing the law itself. Among those involved in the negotiations were DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert Berlin, a Republican, and Kane County State’s Attorney Jamie Mosser, a Democrat.

“We actually moved from saying … throw out the SAFE-T Act totally to, ‘Let’s work on it and make it better.’ And that’s actually progress,” said Rep. La Shawn Ford, a Chicago Democrat who backs the law.

While some prosecutors took part in crafting the amendment, a lawsuit challenging the law brought by more than half of the state’s 102 county prosecutors is still pending, with a decision possible later this month.

“There (were) definitely compromises and conversations” among many parties in crafting the latest amendment to the law, state Sen. Robert Peters, a Chicago Democrat and chief sponsor of the latest revisions, said after Thursday’s vote. Along the way differences emerged within the party and among other advocates of the law.

State Sen. Robert Peters, center, watches as votes are tallied shortly before the Senate approved changes to the controversial criminal justice law known as the SAFE-T Act at the Illinois Capitol building on Dec. 1, 2022, in Springfield.

In September, Democratic state Sen. Scott Bennett of Champaign, also a former prosecutor, pushed for several changes to the law, including language that would allow past failures to show up for court to be used as convincing evidence to keep defendants locked up.

During his reelection campaign, Pritzker pointed to Bennett’s ideas as worthy of consideration. But victims’ rights advocates pushed back on Bennett’s proposals as potentially undermining the intent of ditching a cash bail system.

In the end, the amendment stated that a pattern of no-shows in court can be considered evidence that a defendant is a flight risk.

After the measure cleared the Senate, Peters downplayed any tension between progressive and moderate Democrats in negotiating the changes, noting that Bennett was a co-sponsor of the amendment.

“You can tell that we were eye to eye because we were both on this bill. The bill that passed today says Peters-Bennett,” Peters said. “That just shows the fact that we’re working together. And we as a caucus came together to get this done. You look at that roll call, you can see a unified caucus working to change the pretrial justice system.”

A few days before the changes passed through the legislature, Pritzker acknowledged that Democrats can often disagree when crafting the legislation.

“What did Will Rogers say about the Democratic Party? I don’t belong to an organized party. I’m a Democrat?,” Pritzker joked in a nod to the legendary performer and social commentator of the early 20th century.

State Rep. Justin Slaughter celebrates after the chamber passed changes to the controversial criminal justice law known as the SAFE-T Act at the Illinois Capitol building on Dec. 1.

Peace between the majority party’s moderate and progressive wings was evident in the vote tallies on the amendment, which was approved with unanimous Democratic support in both chambers. The original legislation passed with a bare minimum 60 votes in the House and with just two votes to spare in the Senate.

Some Democrats acknowledged the influence of the campaign season on their effort to revise the law.

“It was about responding both to the legitimate concerns of many stakeholders throughout our state as well as, sadly, to the false and unhinged fearmongering of partisan political operatives who seized on this historic bill as an opportunity to take cheap shots for political gain,” Rep. Anne Stava-Murray, a Naperville Democrat who co-sponsored the measure, said in a statement Friday.

Stava-Murray was among a number of suburban Democrats whose path to reelection appeared steeper due to the criticism over the end of cash bail, but she ended up winning by a 16-point margin, according to unofficial results.

One instance in which lawmakers appeared to respond directly to criticisms from election season was with language clarifying that police are allowed to remove trespassers from private property.

Before the House voted to pass the changes Thursday night, state Rep. Justin Slaughter, the chief sponsor of the SAFE-T Act, and two other Chicago Democrats went over the section of the law that clarifies the ability of police to make arrests for misdemeanors like trespassing instead of just writing tickets.

The issue became a focal point of election rhetoric as opponents of the law suggested it would prevent law enforcement from removing trespassers from private property.

But the Illinois Supreme Court commission that’s advising on implementation of the law’s Jan 1. provisions has said it allows police to remove a trespasser from someone’s property before ticketing them.

While Democrats argued that the law was already clear on this point, they added language to clarify that police can arrest trespassers. Several Democrats said that part of the amendment was necessary to address confusion on the issue.

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy told Slaughter that her constituents had reached out to her about the trespassing issue “more often than almost anything else.” Cassidy also said she agreed with Slaughter that the law seemed to be clear enough already that police would still be able to arrest trespassers.

“But … let’s be as abundantly clear as we can be. The folks in the condos along Sheridan Road who were concerned that they would not be able to remove people from their buildings, those concerns have been fully addressed. Is that correct?” asked Cassidy, whose district covers Rogers Park and other parts of Chicago’s Far North Side.

“They will be, yes,” Slaughter replied.

Democratic state Rep. Will Guzzardi of Chicago thanked Slaughter and those who worked out the amendment for taking “those questions very seriously” even as some dismissed the confusion as the result of “mere political rhetoric in an election cycle.”

State Rep. Will Guzzardi speaks with members of the House before the chamber passed changes to the controversial criminal justice law known as the SAFE-T Act.

The amendment that passed Thursday still needs Pritzker’s signature, but the governor issued a statement after legislators adjourned praising their work.

Gordon-Booth said the latest changes to the law likely won’t be the last as the new system is implemented in the new year.

“It’s such a massive reform,” the Peoria Democrat said. “I think it would be wise to think that we’ll be coming back to do other tweaks, other adjustments based on what … those that are on the ground, that are actually implementing these policies (experience), the things that law enforcement is having to deal with.”

dpetrella@chicagotribune.com

jgorner@chicagotribune.com



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