PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — Beginning Monday, there will be a seismic change in how people are handled when they enter the court system.
Or will there be?
One of the most controversial measures of the SAFE-T Act will take effect Monday — the elimination of cash bail for criminal defendants. It means that people will not have to post a dollar amount to get out of jail while awaiting trial.
“There is some unknown. We’re prepared, but we really truly don’t know what this looks like,” said Peoria County Sheriff Chris Watkins.
Passed last year, the SAFE-T Act was seen as an overhaul of the criminal justice system within Illinois. Eliminating cash bail was a key component and one that galvanized people on both sides.
Proponents said it would allow people who are of low incomes and minorities, to avoid jail while awaiting trial. Those against said it could mean violent people are released when they shouldn’t be or that it’ll add to the workload of police officers on the street as snap judgments will need to be made.
“We don’t think that it’ll have a major impact there. There’s going to be a different process in place, but I don’t believe it’s going to have a drastic impact one way or another,” said McLean County Sheriff Matt Lane. “It will be more of a process and release system instead of a lot of people that we would hold until bail came for them, or they posted….Now it will be a notice to appear issued to them and they will be released with that.”
His Peoria County counterpart, Sheriff Chris Watkins, agreed.
“We’ve been preparing for this for the last year with all the stakeholders – the courts, probation, the State’s Attorney and us. We have frequent meetings. We’re ready. Like it or not, we’re ready,” he said.
Those already in jail on bond will have to file a petition to get out, Lane said.
“It’s going to take some time. It’s not going to be that Monday we let everybody go. It’s going to be more of a slow, a slower process. I think there could be some benefit to some who stay because they’ll have the choice if they were arrested under the current system,” said Lane.
Essentially, there will be two warrant systems in place, Watkins said. Warrants issued before Sept. 18 are subject to bond and warrants issued after Sept. 18 are not.
“It’s not going to be the purge. That’s not what’s going to happen…We have a lot of individuals here right now sitting on cash bail. Depending on what the charge is, they have to go in front of a judge to decide if they are going to be held or not,” said Watkins.
Violent offenders won’t be released from jail, despite some fears and rhetoric to the contrary.
“We have a lot of shooters, a lot of murderers, rapists. We have a lot of violent people in this jail…From what I’m told, they’re not getting out. They don’t even qualify to get out,” said Watkins.
Both Lane and Watkins also agree there’s going to be some “growing pains” involved.
“We’re going to have to make decisions as we go and maybe make adjustments to how we do things as we go based upon what procedurally has to change and how that works out,” Lane said.
Watkins said they have databases in place to track who is coming and out of jail.
“It’s a wait and see also. We’ll learn a lot in the next couple weeks. Probably by the end of the year, I’ll see if our jail population goes down, if people are reoffending. We have systems in place to monitor those,” he said.
Across the river, Tazewell County State’s Attorney Kevin Johnson said there wouldn’t be much of a change at the Pekin courthouse. There would still be a daily hearing Monday through Friday and then one on Saturday for people who are being held in custody. The difference, he said, was what would be discussed.
Instead of deciding how much money was at stake, prosecutors and the judge would decide whether to release a person with a certain number of restrictions or conditions or to hold that person.
The Tazewell County Probation Office will prepare a report for each person, as they do now, and layout who that person is — what their criminal history is, whether are they working, their home life, and other factors that might be considered by a judge. A defense attorney will then get to weigh in.
If a person is held, then they are in custody until the case is finalized, either by a plea, a jury verdict, or a dismissal. If they are released, then they are allowed to remain free until something happens that might cause them to return to court.
Johnson said it’s not unlike how the federal court handles its detention process.