The Illinois Supreme Court made headlines in July when it reaffirmed the SAFE-T Act as official law, making Illinois the first state to completely eliminate cash bail. Beginning Sept. 18, judges across Illinois may no longer order payment of money as a condition for a defendant’s release from custody before trial.
On principle, Illinois’ reform introduces necessary fairness into a system where one’s wallet too often determines whether they’re stuck in jail. Touted by Gov. J. B. Pritzker, the law also ensures that those accused of nonviolent crimes can continue their lives and keep their jobs. Data from other states show that releasing people doesn’t lead to higher rates of re-offense: the large majority of pretrial detainees aren’t career criminals — they’re just those too poor to make bail.
But Illinois’ new program has serious flaws that must be fixed. The law leaves too many opportunities for dangerous or repeat offenders to be released back onto the streets. At a time when violent crime continues to rise, releasing habitual offenders means more opportunities for crime — and that’s a concern for everyone. Which is why the SAFE-T Act necessitates amending.
What’s missing in the SAFE-T Act is real ability for judges to separate habitual offenders and require or deny them bail. While the law allows judges to detain arrestees based on charges or criminal history, Illinois does not provide the additional resources needed to manage defendants detained before trial.
This is a problem for high-volume court systems such as those in Cook County in Chicago, where the need to make informed decisions is likely to discourage judges from ordering pretrial detention.
Reforms are required for SAFE-T to succeed while keeping the public safe. To fix the SAFE-T Act, Illinois should adopt these solutions:
First, require cash bail in cases of violent crime. State lawmakers should craft new legislation that explicitly allows or even mandates pretrial detention for serious and habitual criminal offenders.
Second, provide courts with the infrastructure and resources needed to make fully informed, fact-based bond and pretrial release determinations. That includes staff to run background checks and make recommendations, as the federal courts already have.
Third, strengthen Illinois’ “truth in sentencing” law to accompany the SAFE-T Act, which would require serious and repeat offenders to serve out their full sentences.
Last, encourage major cities such as Chicago to enact their own measures to keep dangerous and habitual offenders off the street.
New Jersey worked to incorporate these principles into its bipartisan bail reform that went into effect back in 2017. It gave judges clear discretion to detain defendants who pose a risk to public safety. Low-risk defendants mostly returned to their families and work, while higher-risk cases were detained before trial.
Washington, DC, also recently enacted a temporary emergency city ordinance making it easier for judges to keep repeat offenders off the streets.
New Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson has barely acknowledged – let alone addressed – crime during his first 75 days in office, despite a surge in summer violence and a crime rate that’s up 38% over this time last year.
Chicago should use its “home rule” authority to pass its own public safety ordinances, allowing judges to impose jail time, fines or probation for those who commit grave offenses such as threatening police, intimidating witnesses, hate crimes, weapons violations or carjackings. This will provide the city with additional options for tackling rising crime, allowing Chicago to prosecute folks who violate its city ordinances.
Effective criminal justice reform is a work in progress — and fairness. Without doubt, our jails must not become debtors’ prisons, and wealth should not be a proxy for risk, be it to the community or skipping trial. But nor should our city streets pay the price for Illinois’ untested experiment in wholesale bail reform. And this means mandating bail for specific crimes and encouraging cities to adopt their own laws to increase public safety.
“No cash bail” reform can be a positive step in ensuring justice across Illinois. But that means finding a balance where high-risk criminals and suspects charged with dangerous offenses can be held by judges to protect the public.
Paul Vallas is an adviser for the Illinois Policy Institute. He ran for Chicago mayor in 2023 and was previously budget director for the city and CEO of Chicago Public Schools.