Opinion: SAFE-T Act leaves victim assistance and resources in limbo

For over two and a half years, Illinoisans have heard the arguments from both sides over the SAFE-T Act, which is the new Illinois law that makes a wide variety of sweeping changes to our criminal justice system and the law enforcement profession. Most notably, it completely eliminates cash bail beginning this September.

On one hand, proponents of the cashless bail provision say people shouldn’t be held in jail ahead of their trial based on their ability to pay. A rich person shouldn’t be able to be released for the same crime as a poor person. That is a noble argument and one most people can agree with.

However, and a big however, opponents of the law, including myself, believe that the SAFE-T Act is poorly designed putting public safety at greater risk and placing victims in further harm. This ill-conceived law does not grant judges enough discretion to hold certain offenders behind bars and other dangerous individuals will slip through the cracks under the new standards state’s attorneys now have to meet to ensure offenders aren’t let back on the streets likely to offend again.

Ultimately, I believe the SAFE-T Act will only increase crime and provides little consideration for victims.

Regardless of my predictions, Illinois will ultimately soon learn of the results and impacts the SAFE-T Act will have on victims and our community’s safety. Sadly, only time will tell what the true implications will be. But what is for certain right now is the financial implications that will be felt once courts can no longer collect bail money.

Reading this, you may be thinking “We shouldn’t have a system built around someone’s ability to pay their way out of jail.”

Sure, but once you look into where that money goes, you’ll find that a lot of it goes directly to the victims of crime. I can’t help but think of the impact this will have on survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault as bail money ultimately provides financial resources directly to them and so many others.

Data from the Illinois Supreme Court Pretrial Practices Implementation Task Force shows that counties currently collect over $80 million in bonds. My largest county, Jefferson County, could see a loss of nearly $750,000, while some of the largest counties in the state could lose several million.

This bond money is applied toward many of the fees that criminals ultimately owe. Without the ability to apply bond money to these important fees, there’s a high likelihood that courts will never be able to recoup the money owed by criminals.

Not only do these fees help with overall court and administrative costs, but most importantly, these fees offer a wide range of resources for victims, from restitution payments for the expenses incurred as a result of being a crime victim, to other services and assistance that government bodies provide victims during their recovery to help them get back on their feet and recover from their traumas.

Let’s take a quick look at the fees for those charged with sex offenses:

For a convicted felony sex offense, over 31 percent of the fee is applied to the Child Advocacy Center Fund, the Violent Crime Victims Assistance Fund, the Sexual Assault Services Fund, and the Domestic Violence Shelter Fund. For a convicted misdemeanor sex offense, 32 percent of the fee is applied to those same Funds.

Additionally, on top of bonds being applied to these various funds that help victims, a judge can also award the victim restitution. A total of $2.5 million in bonds was applied to restitution in 2021, but with bond money no longer available, it’s likely those awards will ever be collected and provided to the victims.

Unfortunately, the concerns on how these resources are still going to be available are not addressed in the SAFE-T Act, nor has the General Assembly in the two and half years since the law passed took up any legislation to fill the huge financial hole the SAFE-T Act is set to cause. This loss of bond revenue will be a direct hit to the victims we should ultimately be protecting.

At the end of the day, we all understand the attempt to make our criminal justice system more “fair.” But let me be clear, the SAFE-T Act is not a victims-first law. The SAFE-T Act was conceived with only the criminal in mind. Never has it been about the victims, who will be left paying an even heftier price as a result.

As a survivor of childhood domestic abuse, I’ve been appalled by much of the rhetoric some have used to justify their support of the SAFE-T Act, but to simply ignore the victims’ restitution and resources that are now left in limbo, is completely unacceptable. Our state must do a better job at supporting and uplifting victims—the SAFE-T Act is not the answer.

– This opinion piece was written by State Senator Terri Bryant (R-Murphysboro) and was published in the Chicago Tribune on August 3, 2023.

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