The SAFE-T Act has been a hot-button issue in Illinois this election season, dominating much of the conversation in the governor’s race, as well as down-ballot races. The Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today (SAFE-T) Act was signed into law by Gov. JB Pritzker in early 2021.
Most of the attention has focused on a portion of the law called the “Pre-trial Fairness Act,” which eliminates cash bail starting Jan. 1. Under the new law, judges will no longer require anyone to pay money bail to get out of jail while they await their trial. Instead, judges will make decisions about who is locked up based on their offense and whether they are deemed a flight risk or a safety threat. Several Republicans have said the changes will lead to increased crime, while some Democrats have argued the law will make courts more fair and allow them to focus on the most serious crimes. The act has been referenced in political debates, and was the target of a misinformation campaign.
But the elimination of cash bail is only one piece of the massive SAFE-T Act. Here are five more things the bill did to change criminal justice in Illinois:
1. Expands services for victims of crime
Victims of crime and their families can face big financial burdens, like the loss of income and funeral costs. Advocates have long argued that a program aimed at relieving that burden, by providing money, is difficult to access, too restrictive and leaves the most vulnerable people without help.
The “Crime Victims Compensation Act” makes it easier for people who’ve been harmed by crime to apply for that cash compensation. Victims will now have five years, instead of two, to apply for help and the cap on how much cash victims can receive is increased to a monthly payment of $2,400 and $10,000 for funeral expenses.
A victim’s criminal history no longer automatically prevents them from applying for compensation, though they still cannot receive money while incarcerated. A requirement that victims cooperate with law enforcement has been amended so officials can consider the victim’s age, linguistic barriers and fear of retaliation.
2. Increases police oversight and accountability
The SAFE-T Act makes multiple changes to policing in the state, with the goal of decreasing police misconduct and violence. It will now be easier for state authorities to take officers accused of serious misconduct off the streets, through a de-certification process. People will also be able to make anonymous complaints about police officers and all law enforcement agencies will now be required to use body cameras by 2025.
The law also adds restrictions on when police can use force, for example prohibiting deadly force against a person who is a threat only to themselves. Officers also now have a “duty to intervene” if another officer is using unauthorized force.
3. Ends so-called “prison gerrymandering”
People in prisons are currently counted as being from the Illinois electoral district where they are incarcerated — even though they can’t vote. That inflates the population in prison towns and gives them more political power, while decreasing political power in areas with high incarceration rates, such as Cook County.
The “No Representation Without Population” portion of the law changes that. When creating state electoral districts, people in prison will now be counted as being from the last known address they lived at before they were incarcerated. However, the law does not go into effect until 2025, so will not affect Illinois’ political map until after redistricting in 2031.
The law is also limited. Population data is used to distribute state and federal funding — determining how much cash communities are entitled to get. But the law specifically states that the data used to draw new Illinois political maps will not be used in allocating funds.
4. Narrows the felony murder law
Previously, a person could be charged with first-degree murder even if neither they, nor their co-defendents, pulled the trigger. For example, if a group of people were robbing a store and the shop owner fatally shot one of them, the other people commiting the robbery could be held responsible for murder.
After the changes in the SAFE-T act, a person cannot be charged with first-degree murder unless they, or one of the other participants in the crime, directly caused a death.
5. Requires documentation of deaths in custody
When someone dies inside an Illinois prison, information about how they died can remain hidden behind prison walls. That sometimes leaves loved ones of incarcerated people desperate for information and without closure. It can also allow prison officials to keep information from the public, so poor health care and abuse are more easily covered up.
The SAFE-T Act requires prisons to notify the relatives of an incarcerated person’s death. Officials are also required to report all in-custody deaths to the Illinois Criminal Justice Authority (ICJA).
Shannon Heffernan is a criminal justice reporter for WBEZ. Follow @shannon_h.