Republicans and law enforcement are winning the messaging war over police reform legislation that the Legislative Black Caucus championed.
Many share the view of longtime Will County State’s Attorney Jim Glasgow, a Democrat, who recently told an audience the law could force him to release up to 60 people charged with murder awaiting trial.
“This is, unfortunately, something I never thought I’d encounter in my 40-year career,” Glasgow told the Homer Township Board during a public meeting Aug. 8. “That the legislature would pass a law that would give us the weakest criminal law in the country, when we’re dealing with a city like Chicago, which is the most violent city in the country.”
New Lenox Mayor Tim Baldermann, a moderate Republican and former police chief of Chicago Ridge, urged lawmakers in an Aug. 11 social media post to revise the Pretrial Fairness Act before it takes effect Jan. 1.
“Make no doubt, hardened, violent criminals will be released back to the streets to commit more crimes,” Baldermann wrote. “This is truly a life or death situation that can be avoided to a major extent by making a few changes to this legislation.”
The Pretrial Fairness Act is part of a broader package of reform legislation known as the Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today, or SAFE-T, Act. Many lawmakers who represent the south suburbs had pushed legislation for years to address police misconduct and racial and wealth disparities in the criminal justice system.
Members of the Legislative Black Caucus rejoiced when they passed the bill in January 2021. But since then they seem to have dropped the ball on messaging, and critics of the legislature have rushed in to fill the void. Public discourse about the law seems decidedly one-sided.
Republicans love to portray Democrats as soft on crime, and the Pretrial Fairness Act is emerging as a cornerstone of GOP messaging for the November gubernatorial election. Darren Bailey, the Republican nominee for governor, took a swipe at Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker in on Aug. 9 social media post.
“Pritzker wants to put more criminals on the streets,” Bailey’s campaign wrote. “We need to repeal the SAFE-T Act and no cash bail. We need to support law enforcement and provide safer communities for every Illinoisan.”
Furor over bond reform has a familiar ring for people in the Chicago area. Cook County adopted bond reforms in 2017, and since then the dominant narrative is that repeat offenders are let loose with nary a slap on the wrist.
Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans, State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and others have embraced the notion of restorative justice. The concept holds that Black people are far more likely to be prosecuted because of systemic racism that has created economic disadvantages.
Some critics of the new law show they understand that view.
“I believe most reasonable people would support cashless bail for someone who has committed a low-level property crime, and who doesn’t have convictions for past violent offenses,” Baldermann wrote. “Being poor should not be the reason someone has to stay in jail.”
Many in law enforcement have urged lawmakers to revisit the legislation during the fall veto session, before the act takes effect Jan. 1. The say the bill mandates changes that are too numerous and drastic to successfully implement all at once.
“If that bill goes into effect, literally, our hands will be tied,” Glasgow said, the Will County Gazette reported. “The police officer’s hands will be tied. And we’ll have what you see in Chicago. I won’t be able to hold anybody in jail longer than 90 days if they demand trial and at the 90th day they get out no matter what crime they committed.”
A spokeswoman said Glasgow was unavailable for an interview Wednesday. His remarks and public appearances have raised awareness about the changes. Some reform advocates have pushed back, including a group that demonstrated Tuesday outside the DuPage County Courthouse, according to reports.
Whereas criticism of the law is widely distributed and readily available, I had to dig to find messages of support for the legislation.
“The Pretrial Fairness Act ensures poverty is no longer a driver of incarceration,” the Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts wrote in February 2021. The group publicly urged Pritzker to sign the bill into law, which he did a few weeks later.
“The Pretrial Fairness Act takes money out of the equation by ensuring pretrial decisions are made based on safety, not on whether or not a person has access to money,” the group wrote.
Public outcry after a police officer killed George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020 helped push the Illinois reform measure over the finish line. Some compared the state law to historic civil rights legislation approved in the wake of civil unrest during the 1960s. Illinois is the first state in the country to end cash bail for people who are awaiting trial.
Among other changes, the Pretrial Fairness Act requires police officers statewide to wear body cameras by 2025. The law creates a more robust statewide system for tracking police misconduct and a new police officer decertification process.
Counties throughout the state are preparing to implement the law. Changes will affect budgets, staffing levels, court schedules and many other aspects of government.
Glasgow and Baldermann have criticized the law’s requirement that prosecutors provide a hearing to suspects within 48 hours of their arrest to determine whether they should remain detained.
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“That is an impossible task for a limited number of assistant state’s attorneys to complete in such an unrealistic time frame,” Baldermann wrote.
Given the barrage of criticism, it is understandable how casual consumers of information could form the impression that come New Year’s Day, every jail in Illinois will empty and the good guys will be forced to let all the bad guys loose.
Critics are afforded a wide berth to promote the view that the only thing separating innocent civilians from a flood of dangerous criminals is an underfunded, poorly administered electronic home monitoring system.
Critics are winning support from moderate Republicans like Baldermann and even elected Democrats like Glasgow. Supporters of the Pretrial Fairness Act ought to do a better job countering the negative messaging.
If the Democratic lawmakers resist calls to revise the Pretrial Fairness Act before the law takes effect Jan. 1, they may have to contend with a lot of citizens who are fearful, angry and, worst of all, misinformed.
Ted Slowik is a columnist with the Daily Southtown.