We’ve all heard about the infamous “Purge Law”, also formally known as the SAFE-T Act, that took headlines by storm in early 2022. Rumors have swirled around ever since and there’s been plenty of debate about whether or not the SAFE-T Act is a good or bad thing, as well as what all it actually entails. The SAFE-T Act was signed into law on December 6th of 2022 and is expected to go into full effect at the beginning of the new year. However, there have been numerous lawsuits filed in objection to the act going into effect, arguing that it violates Illinois’ state constitution. Supporters of the act argue that the act is an important step towards equality, as it allows for the elimination of cash bail, while opposers argue that this could allow for violent criminals to be released back into society while awaiting a trial. With this post, we hope to debunk a few rumors and clear up what this means for the criminal justice system in order for everyone to form an educated opinion on the act.
What is Entailed in the Act?
Essentially, the goal of the SAFE-T Act is to eliminate the cash bail system in order to allow everyone a chance at a fair and speedy trial under the Sixth Amendment. With a cash bail system, defendants are ordered to remain in confinement until the date of their trial unless they are able to pay bail, which can range in dollar amount. If released on bail, defendants are prohibited from traveling outside the state or exhibiting any sort of danger to society. With this being said, the court can choose to hold anyone that may show signs of violating these requirements.
Allowing defendants to be released until trial without the burden of cash bail would allow for these individuals to maintain a job, prevent the implication of access to housing, and statistics show that this can actually help to prevent the defendant from committing future crimes. Additionally, cash bail more often results in defendants being found guilty in a court of law. When housing inmates, the cost of their detainment comes directly from the money we pay in taxes. This means that the more inmates being detained, the more we pay in taxes in order to cover this cost. Less inmates being detained equals less tax dollars being paid. Of course, there are concerns about how individuals integrating into society will be monitored and how law enforcement will ensure that they are in no way a danger or flight risk. As of now, there is the proposal of required electronic monitoring, such as electronic ankle bracelets. Furthermore, there are certainly ways for defendants to be monitored outside of incarceration in order to ensure the safety of society and the individuals themselves.
While the elimination of cash bail has been the most popular topic surrounding the SAFE-T Act, there are several other proposals that accompany the act. Majority of the proposals encourage and advocate for police reformation to a certain capacity. The act would place a ban on police chokeholds and the use of military equipment, require all police officers to wear body cams by 2025, and provides new guidelines for the process of “de-certifying” officers. Advocates for the act say this has been a long time coming, as society has become more aware and rightfully frustrated in the era of social media and advanced technology. Footage and information of murders at the hands of police has circulated the internet over the past few years at extremely high rates. Videos have surfaced of police violence, disproportionately targeted at Black and Brown people, generating public outcry and protests in nearly every major city in the United States. Instances such as the murder of Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others have initiated the Black Lives Matter movement. In order to better protect citizens from police violence, reforming the policing system in America is crucial, and it is argued that the SAFE-T Act will do just that with increased monitoring and restrictions.
Both New Jersey and New York have passed similar acts that effectively eliminate cash bail. However, the results in both states have varied. Lower crime rates resulted in New Jersey, while crime rates actually rose in New York. What was the difference between the two states that allowed for such drastically different outcomes? Studies have found that the elimination of cash bail was contingent on one specific key difference that the states had implemented: the right of courts to hold defendants. In New Jersey, courts held the right to determine holding defendants based on the crime they had committed, the risk of fleeing the state, and the level of danger to society that individual may possess. In contrast, New York could not hold defendants that showed these kinds of risks unless they had committed specific crimes. The SAFE-T Act follows more closely to New York’s policies, which hold a detention net. This has become a cause of concern for policy makers, legislators, and members of society.
The big question the state of Illinois faces is whether or not the SAFE-T Act violates the Illinois State Constitution. Over sixty lawsuits have been filed by prosecutors and police departments, claiming “The Illinois Constitution interprets bail, at its core, to include a monetary amount..” and would require amendments be made to the constitution. The argument is that by eliminating cash bail altogether, the court would be in violation of the state constitution and the limits it sets on defendants and their release back into society.
However, advocates for the bill focus on the wording in the constitution that states “all persons shall be bailable by sufficient sureties”. Advocates say that defendants released upon elimination of cash bail would be subject to regular drug tests and be required to check in with court personnel on a regular basis, almost acting as a parole system. This would allow for defendants to be monitored while awaiting their trial date without having to be confined in a cell. Defendants could keep their jobs, support their families, and make strides toward bettering their lives and society.
Support would be provided by the court system to remind these individuals of any important deadlines and court dates to ensure that this could not be overlooked. On top of that, defendants would be able to request help with childcare and transportation needs in order to ensure that their time outside of confinement is productive and meaningful. Advocates argue that these measures fit into the constitution’s limits of “sufficient sureties”, as no mention of cash bail is ever explicitly stated in the constitution and is up to interpretation of the individual reading over the document.
Cash bail is often viewed as a detriment to those that cannot afford it. Those charged with nonviolent crimes are forced to sit in confinement awaiting trial, which could take years, simply because they cannot afford to pay the fee. Other individuals committing more serious crimes, who could potentially be a danger to society, may be released on the parameters of meeting the cash bail requirement.
Opponents to the elimination of cash bail hold the argument that if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. Controversy over the SAFE-T Act has flooded social media and news platforms for nearly the entirety of 2022, with both sides arguing their positions firmly. Arguments began on December 20, 2022 and Judge Thomas W. Cunnington ruled against the act later that week, stating that parts of the act were unconstitutional and that under the separation of powers, the legislature is unable to make laws regarding the bail system. While the SAFE-T Act will not go into effect at the beginning of 2023 as expected, there is a great chance that the court will reexamine the act and allow for necessary changes to be made in order to pass it effectively in the state of Illinois.