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Judge rules bail reform, pretrial release provisions of SAFE-T Act unconstitutional

Judge rules Illinois' elimination of cash bail unconstitutional
Judge rules Illinois' elimination of cash bail unconstitutional 01:50

CHICAGO (CBS) --  A judge in Kankakee County ruled parts of the controversial SAFE-T Act are unconstitutional, just a few days before cash bail was set to be eliminated statewide.

The ruling by 21st Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Thomas Cunnington late Wednesday found that the pretrial release portions of the SAFE-T Act violate the separation of powers clause of the Illinois Constitution, and will not take effect in 65 counties that had sued to block the abolishment of cash bail. Other provisions of the law, including body camera requirements for police departments, and new police training mandates, will go into effect as planned on Jan. 1.

The end of cash bail can still go into effect in 37 counties that were not part of the lawsuit; including Cook, DuPage, Kane and Lake counties.

Gov. JB Pritzker and Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, who have defended the law, pledged to appeal the judge's ruling to the Illinois Supreme Court.

"Today's ruling is a setback for the principles we fought to protect through the passage of the SAFE-T Act. 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 in a statement.  

Kankakee County State's Attorney Jim Rowe, one of the state's attorneys who had challenged the end to cash bail in Illinois, hailed Cunnington's ruling.

"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. 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. 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 said.   

Rowe had argued that the end of cash bail "stripped away" the courts' ability to ensure the safety of victims and victims' families, according to the Kankakee County State's Attorney's office.

In his ruling, the judge wrote that the law's changes to cash bail should have been put before voters as a proposed constitutional amendment.

Republican leaders in Illinois also celebrated Cunnington's ruling. Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs) called Cunnington's ruling "a victory for the often neglected victims of crime and the men and women of law enforcement who wear the badge every day."

"We need to be able to allow the courts to continue to make judgement calls on individuals who've been charged with crimes; on whether or not – based on the facts, the implications to the victim, and also the consequences to the communities – of whether or not bail can be set," Durkin said. "And that's what the court has said; that this is an inherent responsibility of the circuit court to make these judgment calls."

Just weeks ago, Illinois state lawmakers passed a revised SAFE-T Act – after months of criticism and concerns over its elimination of cash bond. But the revision was not enough to prompt 65 state's attorneys across the state to drop their lawsuits challenging it.

Rowe argued that the act is unconstitutional for several reasons. He argued first, it's vague; second, it violates crime victims' rights; third, because its passage violated legislative rules and procedures; and fourth, because it infringes on the court's power.

But the attorney for the State of Illinois told Judge Cunnington the state's attorneys' arguments are an overreach. The attorney for Illinois said there are many precedents that discount the plaintiffs' arguments, and he also argued that the law would only be unconstitutional if it unduly infringes upon judicial power.

It's unclear how soon Pritzker and Raoul will file an appeal with the Illinois Supreme Court, or how quickly the state's highest court would hear the case and issue a ruling.

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