Court actors must implement SAFE-T Act for crime survivors

Amanda Pyron

In mid-September, Illinois will move one step further in the pursuit of justice by exchanging risk for wealth as a determinant of safety when making pretrial release decisions. As someone with 25 years of experience as an advocate for survivors, most spent working in our federal criminal legal system that has long operated without money bail, I know risk-based decision making can keep survivors of gender-based violence and the public safe.  

Since the Pretrial Fairness Act was passed in 2021, opponents have used fearmongering and misinformation to derail its success. Over recent months, it has become clear that some public officials are still not ready for this new system, nor are they doing enough to prepare for these changes.

We routinely saw survivors used as pawns during the political debate over this bill, and sadly that continues. Misinformation continues to come from state’s attorneys themselves or their allies in law enforcement who oppose the law. In a recent story published by WGLT, McLean County State’s Attorney Erika Reynolds falsely claimed that some people charged with domestic violence couldn’t be jailed under the new law. In fact, all people charged with domestic violence, both as a misdemeanor or felony, can be held in jail pretrial when there are public safety concerns. No one charged with an offense of domestic violence will be released without a hearing. Notice to survivors, along with an offer to petition for a domestic violence order of protection, is required before an initial hearing. These are all powers given to states’ attorneys to keep survivors safe and informed of all their options at each stage of their case. 

The Pretrial Fairness Act will be implemented Sept. 18 after years of advocacy by organizations combatting gender-based violence. Our community specifically drafted provisions in the law to require notice from states’ attorneys’ offices to victims ahead of the initial hearings, when that hearing was previously exempted from the list of hearings requiring victim notification by states attorneys. We also drafted language to ensure offenses like sex crimes, trafficking and domestic violence are on the list of offenses that require police, prosecutors and judges to take extra time with these cases. With more time, survivor safety will be at the forefront of every decision, rather than having cases moved as quickly as possible. We also worked to ensure that all states’ attorneys must file a petition to detain a defendant for any violation of protective order, knowing the potential lethality and safety issues at play when a protective order is violated. These are the critical provisions that, coupled with the end of wealth-based incarceration, will create a more survivor-centered pretrial system. 

The time has come to ensure our court actors understand the law and will fully implement this law to protect survivors. Any failure to implement — including notice to survivors of initial hearings, provision of a protective order when requested, or completion of a risk assessment when needed — will put individual survivors and communities at greater risk for repeated harm. By reducing pretrial jailing for most offenses, court actors can finally turn their attention to where it should be: on higher level offenses like domestic violence and sexual assault that affect public safety and survivors.

When our elected officials and law enforcement perpetuate misinformation about the law, they put survivors at risk by misstating their rights under this new system. Survivors deserve to know how exactly their county state’s attorney and local law enforcement will enforce the new law, and ensure it upholds public safety for all people. It is imperative we set aside political differences and implement the law correctly so all survivors across Illinois can get the rights and opportunities afforded to them under the SAFE-T Act.

Illinois should be proud to be the first state in the country to abolish money bail, and center survivor-centered practices into its pretrial system. We call on states’ attorneys and law enforcement to join us to prepare our communities and survivors for this new and improved system.  

Amanda Pyron is executive director of The Network, an anti-gender-based-violence organization in Chicago that helped draft and pass the Pretrial Fairness Act.