SAFE T Act: Pre-Trial fairness goes into effect Sept. 18

This will make Illinois the first state in the country to abolish cash bail.
Published: Sep. 13, 2023 at 6:34 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 13, 2023 at 6:35 PM CDT
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ROCKFORD, Ill. (WIFR) - With polarizing viewpoints from the moment it passed two years ago, the final portion of the SAFE-T Act goes into effect on Monday, September 18.

This will make Illinois the first state in the country to abolish cash bail. According to civil rights leaders, cash bail disproportionately impacts minorities who are less likely to afford bonds. Now, groups across the state will come together to make sure this portion of the law will be properly implemented.

“We know that other states are looking to Illinois as a progressive leader and ending mass incarceration and restoring the presumption of innocence,” said Violet Johnicker, a pastor with Brooke Road United Methodist Church, and soon, a Winnebago County Court Watcher.

On Monday, Johnicker and others from around the region will begin their new volunteer role.

“What we do is we work with an organization that asks us to collect data and then we share that data back with experts so that they can evaluate it and ensure that the will is being implemented as intended in counties across the state,” Johnicker said.

Watchers will collect demographics and other data of people coming to court, sending that data to the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice. They will take note of the judges response and focus on terms of release.

“We can use that information to collaborate with court actors to point out any blind spots or areas where things are not being implemented as planned or as hoped or as intended,” said Briana Payton, a Senior Policy Analyst with the Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts, a member of the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice.

Payton thinks these court watchers are essential.

“For people to be able to go directly into the courtrooms and observe for themselves the way that this new system works, the way that it is more fair, the way that it is hopefully more thoughtful and rigorous that the current money bond system. The importance of that can’t be overstated,” she said.

Winnebago County State’s Attorney, J. Hanley, has some doubts about the new law’s definition of a detainable offense, but is OK with the idea of no cash bail and watchers in courtrooms.

“I’ve talked to the individuals who are going to be court watching before when we thought the law was gonna be in place and I was very welcoming and accommodating to them,” he said.

Supporters say new laws involve growing pains, but hope more eyes will mean fewer issues.

“That’s part of the court observation process. We got there as a further check and balance to make sure things are going as intended,” Johnicker said.

Residents are still able to become court watchers in Winnebago County, just contact Rockford Urban Ministries.