SAFE-T Act: Illinois victim advocacy groups ensured protections for survivors

Published: Sep. 28, 2022 at 7:03 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD (WGEM) - The SAFE-T Act and Pretrial Fairness Act have been a hot topic for several weeks after a meme went viral sharing misinformation about the end of cash bail on Jan. 1. While many have heard from lawmakers debating the changes to the bail system, you likely haven’t heard from survivors of violence.

There has been plenty of political rhetoric surrounding the SAFE-T Act. Put that aside for a few minutes to learn from the women who negotiated protections for survivors of sexual and domestic violence.

“It isn’t about letting people out of jail,” said Vickie Smith, President and CEO of the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “It’s about doing your job to determine whether or not the individual being charged is a danger to the community or individuals.”

ICADV said the law will prioritize the safety of survivors by having a comprehensive, fact-based hearing process for individual decisions about pretrial release. Smith said no one can force crime victims to participate in the hearing process. Attorneys or local crisis advocates can go to court hearings on their behalf. However, Smith stressed that it is important to allow them to have the opportunity to participate if they choose to.

“That means providing the information, letting them know when court dates are happening, letting them know what your thought process is about what you want to do as a prosecutor or a judge,” Smith said.

Under the law, state attorneys will be responsible for notifying victims of the pretrial hearings and their right to obtain an order of protection if they don’t have one already. The Pretrial Fairness Act allows defendants to be held for up to 48 hours to allow prosecutors to gather evidence on whether or not release is necessary to keep survivors safe.

“It is going to take into account all of the many unique circumstances that exist in a relationship,” said Mallory Littlejohn, the Legal Director with the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation. “And when you’re talking about intimate partner violence, those unique and specific circumstances can be the difference between life and death.”

Advocates noted that lawmakers needed to address the current timeline for pretrial hearings as people are frequently arrested and appear in bond court within a few hours, leaving victims confused and worried about their future.

“That is just practically not enough time for prosecutors to get their case in order and notify the victim about what is going on,” Littlejohn added.

Littlejohn explained that pretrial release may be denied if the defendant is charged with stalking or aggravated stalking and it is alleged that release poses a real and present threat to the safety of a victim. A judge can also deny release if the survivor of abuse was a family or household member with an order of protection against the defendants. The law calls for denial of pretrial release for any defendants charged with domestic battery if the suspect poses a threat to the safety of a victim or other people as well.

“We were able to include issues regarding civil no contact orders and stalking no contact orders when the bill originally only referenced orders of protection. That’s an expansion,” said Carrie Ward, President and CEO of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Ward said people sometimes make overarching assumptions about what they think legislation does. Although, she noted that victim advocates would never support a plan that would hurt survivors.

“There’s a lot of information out there that makes it seem like the doors are open and everyone is being let out of jail. People are saying that there are killers, rapists, and other folks that are being let out,” Ward said. “That makes it seem as though that happened without any consideration for survivors. I think that’s a very broad brush to paint what actually happened in the legislation and it’s not accurate.”

The Supreme Court created a Commission on Pretrial Practices in November of 2017. This group was responsible for providing recommendations on pretrial reform within the criminal justice system. The commission wrote that all counties should have procedures in place to ensure victims are recognized during the pretrial phase. Commission members believe victims should be notified of all pretrial hearings, bail decisions, conditions of release related to their safety, and instructions to seek enforcement of release conditions.

Commission members wrote in a 2020 final report that establishing a robust and effective pretrial system in Illinois is the first and most crucial step toward minimizing and eventually eliminating cash bail. Although, the group said state lawmakers needed to first implement meaningful reforms and dedicate adequate resources to allow evidence-based risk assessment and supervision.

“Although the elimination of cash bail was discussed at length, and many points of view were considered, the Commission reached no consensus on the issue,” members wrote.

“We wanted to create a system that was safe and straightforward for all survivors and that was also not deeply rooted in racism and white supremacy and money for the defendants,” Littlejohn said.

Each of the advocates said they look forward to seeing how these changes to the pretrial process help survivors and defendants over the next year. Smith said Illinois has to try implementing the new system instead of going back to the status quo.

“We believe firmly that whether or not you can write a check is not how we should determine whether or not someone is safe enough to let out of jail,” Smith explained. “In the best interest of victims of domestic violence and the community, we need these procedures in place so we actually look at an individual, look at the circumstances and then decide whether or not they can be released or if they should be detained.”

Ward said ICASA will analyze how the pretrial fairness changes impact sexual assault survivors, specifically if there are disproportionate impacts for those survivors. She hopes to hear stories from survivors and advocates about how the new law helps more people than it harms.

“If so, what can we change to make sure that it doesn’t happen again? Is there some good for sexual assault survivors that came out of this opportunity,” Ward asked. “Could it be improved upon? If so, let’s take steps to do that. I think it’s going to be a learning process for us and we want to stay vigilant about what doesn’t work.”

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