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McLean County’s chief prosecutor says lawsuit against SAFE-T Act is not a negotiating tactic

Reynolds Sandage.jpg
McLean County State's Attorney Erika Reynolds and Sheriff Jon Sandage claim that “public safety is threatened if the SAFE-T Act goes into effect in its current form” Jan. 1, citing concerns with changes to pretrial detention. They want a judge to issue a temporary restraining order to stop the law from going into effect, and to declare it unconstitutional.

McLean County’s top prosecutor says that her lawsuit aimed at stopping the criminal justice reform law known as the SAFE-T Act is not a negotiating tactic and that she’s not “opposed to responsible bail reform.”

Erika Reynolds, who was appointed state’s attorney last month, filed the lawsuit last week along with McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage. Both are Republicans; the four defendants are the Democratic governor, attorney general and two legislative leaders. Their lawsuit, assigned to Judge Rebecca Foley, is very similar in language – identical in parts – to those filed by law enforcement officials in other Illinois counties, including Tazewell.

The intention is to consolidate those complaints into a single lawsuit, said Reynolds.

“This is just one tool that we have in our tool chest to try to address the concerns we have,” Reynolds told WGLT. “But no, it’s not a negotiation tactic.”

Reynolds and Sandage claim that “public safety is threatened if the SAFE-T Act goes into effect in its current form” Jan. 1, citing concerns with changes to pretrial detention. They want a judge to issue a temporary restraining order to stop the law from going into effect, and to declare it unconstitutional.

Sandage declined an interview request from WGLT, citing the pending litigation. Reynolds agreed to answer a few questions but largely directed the public to review the press release and lawsuit that she and Sandage filed.

“There’s a suggestion that prosecutors have a problem with bail reform,” Reynolds said. “We’re not opposed to responsible bail reform. This just isn’t the process you do it under.”

PDF: Read the lawsuit filed by Reynolds and Sandage

In their press release, Reynolds and Sandage said a “reasonable compromise” is possible and that they support “meaningful, responsible bail reform.” Reynolds on Wednesday declined to describe what that might look like. She said the Illinois State’s Attorneys Association was involved in negotiations with stakeholders, including lawmakers, and she didn’t want to undermine that.

“There’s several law enforcement entities that are actively engaged in negotiations in order to try and address some of the issues we have with the underlying bill,” Reynolds said.

In their lawsuit, Reynolds and Sandage claim the following:

  • That the end of cash bail will “lead to increased delays in cases handled (by the state’s attorney’s office), not only leading to delay in administration of justice, but also increased staff workloads and costs. Without the ability to secure the appearance of defendants for trial, (the state’s attorney) will be severely hamstrung in her ability to proceed with the prosecution of cases, and the courts will be stripped of their inherent authority to manage their courtrooms.”
  • That police, including the sheriff’s office, would be asked to make their own “impromptu rulings” on whether a suspect should be released without the benefit of a hearing. Sandage says he “has an interest in refraining from assuming control of constitutionally judicial powers as (they) relate to the release of criminal defendants pre-trial.”
  • That the state’s attorney’s office will be subject to pattern and practice investigations by the Illinois attorney general, which will require a response “whether they possess merit or not.”
  • That new protections for government whistleblowers related to the SAFE-T Act will burden the state’s attorney’s office with “significant new responsibilities” without any state funding to pay for it. Reynolds says her office will be the designated “auditing official” as defined in the new law.
  • That the SAFE-T has many “contradictions and ambiguities.” That includes a lack of clarity on whether the law is to be “prospective or retrospective, leading to a lack of uniform implementation.”

The SAFE-T has become a key issue in the race for governor between incumbent Democrat JB Pritzker and his Republican challenger, Darren Bailey.

Pritzker, who supports the SAFE-T Act, has said that “punishing individuals accused of less serious offenses before they have the opportunity to defend themselves in court – is contrary to the foundation of our justice system and based on outdated research that has been debunked.”

“This lawsuit is a weak attempt to protect the status quo that lets murders and abusers pay their way out of jail,” the governor’s office said in a statement to WGLT. “The SAFE-T Act not only prevents that from happening, but also provides law enforcement officers the tools they need to fight crime, like body cameras, additional training and access to mental healthcare. Victims’ rights organizations support the law and the state will defend creating a more equitable criminal justice system in court.”

McLean County Board justice committee member and Democratic 91st House District candidate Sharon Chung told WGLT in a statement she was open to reforms of the bill, although she did not specify what kind are needed.

"I was not a member of the legislature at the time this bill was passed or during its negotiations. From the start, I have been clear there are things we can do to help improve the SAFE-T Act. I am committed to working with law enforcement and survivors' advocates to improve the bill and keep our communities safe," Chung's statement read in full.

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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