Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker holds up House Bill 3653, also known as the SAFE-T Act, after signing it into law on February 22, 2021, in Chicago. | Photo: Illinois Information Service

A judge has ruled that the abolishment of cash bail in the SAFE-T Act is unconstitutional and it will not go into effect in 65 Illinois counties on January 1.

The Safety, Accountability, Fairness, and Equity Today, or SAFE-T Act, was approved by the General Assembly in January 2021.

It makes several changes to the criminal justice system in the state, including eliminating cash bail statewide, making Illinois the first state to do so.

The measure was met with pushback from large segments of the law enforcement community statewide, who say the act could be harmful to allow alleged criminals back on the street as they await trial.

In November, state Rep. Adam Niemerg, R-Dieterich, said the passage of the SAFE-T Act was unconstitutional.

“We are at a particular point where this goes into effect on Jan. 1, and we got … state attorneys that are highly questioning this particular piece of legislation,” Niemerg told The Center Square.

“Furthermore, the constitutionality of the measure is very much in question.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who won a second term in November, suggested changes to the bill’s language to clear up any misunderstanding.

“So let us amend the act to make it very explicit,” Pritzker said in October.

“Those violent criminals that are in jail awaiting trial, that Jan. 1 is not some deadline to let people out,” Pritzker said.

Pritzker said the SAFE-T Act intends to do the opposite of what he said Republicans claim it will do.

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“One of the purposes of the SAFE-T Act is to keep our neighborhoods safe,” Pritzker said.

“It is to make sure that people who are awaiting trial and are non-violent, who may have committed a low-level offense, do not sit in jail because they do not have a few hundred dollars,” he added.

The measure went to court with dozens of state’s attorneys filing separate lawsuits.

Those were later consolidated into a single case out of Kankakee County.

After the election, state lawmakers came back to legislative session and passed an amendment to the SAFE-T Act that creates a net of detainable offenses an individual can be held pending trial, among other changes. That did not deter the legal challenge.

Kankakee County State’s Attorney Jim Rowe argued against the SAFE-T Act last week.

Rowe claimed the measure was unconstitutional by violating the state’s single-subject law, which confines legislation to only one subject.

In addition, he argued that the whole measure is invalid because there is a provision related to redistricting maps.

Darren Kinkead, who argued on behalf of the state, claimed the measure does not violate any single-subject laws because the redistricting would have to do with prisoners and would be included as a part of the criminal justice system.

Kankakee County Judge Thomas Cunnington made a ruling in the case Wednesday evening in favor of the plaintiffs.

His ruling means the bail reform and pre-trial release provisions are unconstitutional and will not go into effect on January 1 in the 65 counties that were plaintiffs in the lawsuit, according to Rowe.

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The other provisions in the SAFE-T Act, such as the body camera requirements and police training, were upheld and will still go into effect. Some portions of the SAFE-T Act are already in effect.

“Today’s ruling affirms that we are still a government of the people, and that the Constitutional protections afforded to the citizens of Illinois – most importantly the right to exercise our voice with our vote – are inalienable,” Rowe said.

“The Act was a 765 page bill passed during a lame duck session under cover of darkness at 4:00a.m., affording legislators less than one hour to read it and vote on it, and denying the general public any opportunity to offer comment or input,” Rowe said.

“It amended the State Constitution and eroded the constitutional protections of the Victim Rights Act, all while disenfranchising the people of their Constitutional right to vote on such reforms. The people of Illinois deserve better than that, and today’s verdict condemns the Act for exactly what it is: unconstitutional,” Rowe added.

Cunnington said the SAFE-T Act violates the Separation of Powers clause, violates the Victim Rights Act and unconstitutionally amends Article I Section 9 of the Constitution because voters were denied their right to vote on such amendments.

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“… had the Legislature wanted to change the provisions in the Constitution regarding eliminating monetary bail… they should have submitted the question on the ballot to the electorate at a general election,” Cunnington said.

He also said that the legislature’s action in violation of the Separation of Powers “stripped away” the court’s ability to ensure the safety of a victim and their family.

In a confusing statement following the ruling, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul claimed the end of cash bail portion of the SAFE-T Act will still go into effect on January 1 in all of the state’s 102 counties.

Raoul also said his office intends to appeal the court’s ruling to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Pritzker also released a statement following the ruling, saying that it is a “setback for the principles we fought to protect.”

“The General Assembly and advocates worked to replace an antiquated criminal justice system with a system rooted in equity and fairness. We cannot and should not defend a system that fails to keep people safe by allowing those who are a threat to their community the ability to simply buy their way out of jail. I thank the Attorney General for his work on this case and look forward to the Illinois Supreme Court taking up the appeal as soon as possible,” Pritzker said.

The Center Square and Lake and McHenry County Scanner both contributed to this report.