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Tazewell County state's attorney, sheriff challenge SAFE-T Act in court

TazewellCountyCourtHouse.jpg
Tazewell County Circuit Clerk's Office

Add Tazewell County's top prosecutor and sheriff to a growing list of law enforcement officials around Illinois suing to block full implementation and ultimately overturn a criminal justice reform bill signed into law nearly two years ago.

Tazewell County State's Attorney Kevin Johnson and Sheriff Jeff Lower filed suit Wednesday in Tazewell County Circuit Court arguing the law is unconstitutional on several levels. They're also seeking a preliminary injunction on the law's implementation pending an outcome in the suit.

The two officials are Republicans. They are suing Gov. JB Pritzker, Attorney General Kwame Raoul, House Speaker Chris Welch, and Senate President Don Harmon - all Democrats.

The Tazewell County law enforcement authorities join a growing, bipartisan coterie of local officials filing similar suits in circuit court - some of which are almost identical, word-for-word.

Johnson and Lower argue the law will lead to increased staff workloads, delays in court cases, and make it harder to compel a defendant's appearance in court.

"Plaintiffs will be burdened with not only significant new responsibilities, but the obligation to find funding mechanisms to address these unfunded mandates, stemming from an unconstitutionally passed law," the complaint reads.

The 28-page lawsuit complaint filed in Pekin this week essentially argues the SAFE-T Act violates provisions concerning bail and separation of powers in the Illinois Constitution. It argues the law broke the legislative "single subject" rule and the three readings rule.

The plaintiffs are also asking for a preliminary injunction on the law's provisions while the matter is under litigation.

Sarah Staudt is director of policy for Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts, a partner in the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice coalition advocating for the elimination of cash bond. She said the suits are spurred by opposition to the elimination of cash bail, and she said the arguments made are primarily political, not legal in nature.

"You've got to think about the timing of this, right? I mean, we're talking about violations of the three readings clause. This bill was passed almost two years ago," she said. "And now we're in an election season, and suddenly these issues are being brought up. They're not serious issues."

Many tenets of the law signed into law in January 2021 have already taken effect, but the elimination of cash bond doesn't start until Jan. 1, 2023.

The suit also asks the court to determine the law as written is too vague to stand. It appears the legislature is poised to make clarifications to the law.

A bill offered by state Sen. Scott Bennett (D-Champaign) offers revisions such as removing language that officers should presume pretrial release when making arrests. Cash bail elimination advocates oppose Bennett's bill.

Gov. JB Pritzker has signaled willingness to make some changes to the SAFE-T Act, but hasn't offered much in the way of specifics on what alterations he will back, per reporting from Capitol News Illinois and other news outlets.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the governor's office didn't directly address the lawsuit's arguments, but said the cash bail changes create a system where detention is based on risk, rather than poverty.

"There is no such thing as a 'non-detainable' offense," the spokesperson said. "Any alleged offender could be detained because of a risk of flight or because they are a repeat offender and those charged with the most serious crimes – which are non-probationable – can also be detained for risk to public safety. This means that risk is more important than riches."

The governor's office also notes domestic victims' rights groups support the bill, a point the governor also noted in a televised gubernatorial debate on Thursday.

A spokesperson for the Illinois Attorney General's Office declined to comment on pending litigation.

A hearing on the Tazewell County lawsuit is currently set for April 6, 2023.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.