A landmark criminal justice reform bill in Illinois will not only end cash bail within the state, but overhaul its drug policies and pretrial procedures.
Governor J.B. Pritzker (D-Ill.) signed the SAFE-T Act (House Bill 3653) into law on February 22. The bill contains the Pretrial Fairness Act, which calls for new cash bail reforms to be gradually implemented until the practice is completely abolished by January 1, 2023. Judges will be required to impose the least restrictive conditions necessary to ensure that a defendant appears in court.
“All the reforms in this bill are long overdue. They’re long awaited,” Ben Ruddell, director of Criminal Justice Policy at the ACLU of Illinois, told Filter. “The expansion of the carceral state—it’s been a one-way street.”
The legislation gives courts the discretion to disregard mandatory minimums in certain situations, including if the offense involved the use or possession of drugs, retail theft or driving on a revoked license due to unpaid fines or fees.
A previous version of the bill would have applied “bans toward [mandatory] minimums basically wherever they exist, and sentenced defendants where the law currently doesn’t provide that as an option,” Ruddell said. But over the course of getting that part of the bill passed, amendments were added to reduce the number of offenses it covered.
“The question that I have about it is, what’s left? What does it actually apply to?” Ruddell said. “Because, as I interpret the law, retail doesn’t carry a mandatory minimum. Nor does drug possession,” with the exception of methamphetamine.
Under the Act, judges can still consider the defendant’s past drug or alcohol use when setting their bail. However, the Act repeals the Illinois statute giving courts the power to enact a drug testing program. Judges will no longer be permitted to require that people undergo periodic drug testing as a condition of their bail.
Policy Changes for Deflection Programs
The SAFE-T Act builds on a bill that was signed into law in 2018, which officially authorized police officers to establish programs to “deflect” people who have overdosed or who have substance use disorders (SUD) away from the criminal legal system.
The new legislation clarifies that first responders and co-responders, not just law enforcement officers, can be involved with deflection programs. It also adds that such programs are intended to not only deflect people away from contact with the criminal legal system, but from unnecessary admissions to the emergency department.
First responders and co-responders (such as peer or social workers) involved with such deflection programs are also now eligible for funding from the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority. However, in order to be eligible for that funding, they must include a law enforcement agency.
This is for “administrative” reasons, Jac Charlier, the executive director of the Chicago-based TASC Center for Health and Justice, told Filter. “They know how to collect data,” Charlier said. “They know how to share data. Believe it or not these other entities like behavioral health, drug treatment, mental health, even EMS and fire who do well on the data, they’re not as used to doing partnerships with other entities.”
“You could have done it prior to this, but you’re on your own. This legislation says, ‘We’ve got funding for you.'”
Charlier said the Act gives communities who are interested in setting up deflection programs a blueprint for navigating how to set them up.
“You could have done it prior to this and you can do it without the legislation, but you’re on your own,” Charlier told Filter. “The legislation says, ‘We’ve got funding for you. We’ll give you a framework within which to set it.’”
The Act emphasizes that such funding will go to communities that have been the most harmed by the criminalization of drugs. This includes communities “that have a police/community relations issue, and communities that have a disproportionate lack of access to mental health and drug treatment,” the legislation reads. (Illinois’s rollout of cannabis legalization recently fell short of the promises it made to award dispensary licenses to people from historically marginalized communities.)
Deflection programs will be required to receive training in a variety of drug-related topics, including treatment for SUD, eliminating stigma around people with SUD and mental health and the neuroscience of addiction for law enforcement.
Naloxone “and related supplies necessary for carrying out overdose reversal” are also eligible for funding.
Charlier hopes that organizations interested in implementing a deflection program carefully consider what they hope to gain from doing so, and what technical assistance they’ll need to succeed at it.
“It needs to be done like everything else, with the thought around why we’re doing it … versus just saying, ‘Oh, this is a bright shiny object, the co-responder, let’s go do it,’” Charlier said.
For his part, Ruddell expects to see backlash to the SAFE-T Act in the form of legislation introduced to roll back portions of it.
“Defending the bill is going to be a full time job,” Ruddell said. “There’s a lot of misinformation, disinformation and fear-mongering going on, some of which is being repeated uncritically by some media sources.”
Ruddell cited getting rid of qualified immunity for police officers as well as reducing excessive sentencing practices in Illinois as two goals to focus on in the near future.
He also suggested that the state reclassify simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. A bill introduced to the Illinois House on February 19 would, among other things, reduce the penalty for the delivery or possession of methamphetamine.