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St. Clair County will delay putting an end to cash bail. Here’s why

St. Clair County will delay bail reform that was slated to take effect at the start of 2023.
File photo
Belleville News-Democrat
St. Clair County will delay bail reform that was slated to take effect at the start of 2023.

Editor's note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat.

St. Clair County is putting a pause on ending cash bail.

Courts across Illinois were supposed to transition Jan. 1 to a new process for detaining people accused of a crime with implementation of the Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today Act. It was approved by state legislators last year.

But St. Clair County Associate Judge Julie Katz on Friday granted a request from the county prosecutor and sheriff to delay that change because of a ruling late Wednesday that the part of the SAFE-T Act which abolishes cash bail is unconstitutional.

Kankakee County Chief Judge Thomas W. Cunnington issued the ruling in a lawsuit involving prosecutors and sheriffs from 64 counties, including Madison, Clinton, Monroe, Randolph, Bond and Washington.

Officials from the counties involved in the lawsuit say they will not be implementing bail reform on Jan. 1 because of the ruling.

St. Clair County is not a party to the lawsuit. If it had gone forward with the changes to bail, it would have effectively resulted in “two criminal justice systems” working at the once, Katz wrote in her order.

State officials are planning to appeal Cunnington’s ruling in the Illinois Supreme Court.

In the meantime, the metro-east will continue using a cash bail system, including St. Clair County. It means people charged with a crime can be released from jail if they can pay an amount of money set by a judge.

The SAFE-T Act sought to detain people accused of a crime only if evidence showed they were a danger to others or a flight risk. Supporters of the law note that, with a cash bail system, some people could be unnecessarily jailed because they cannot afford to pay bond.

Lawmakers approved the SAFE-T Act in a January 2021 lame duck session and have amended it three times since.

Opponents criticized the law during 2022 election campaigns as a threat to public safety.

Loyola University published research that challenges the assumption the cash bail system keeps dangerous people behind bars.

Researchers found that most people with felony cases in Illinois did not previously await trial in jail.

In St. Clair, Monroe, Randolph, Washington and Perry counties, they estimated 79% of people with pending felony cases at year-end between 2017 and 2019 were at home rather than in jail custody, and they had no supervision such as electronic monitoring.

The Kankakee County judge said the SAFE-T Act was unconstitutional because:

  • It doesn’t align with the Illinois Constitution, which suggests bail — the conditions of release before trial — has a monetary component.
  • It violates the separation of powers by restricting judges.

St. Clair County State’s Attorney Jim Gomric and Sheriff Rick Watson asked Katz to consider a temporary restraining order at an emergency hearing Friday, two days after the Kankakee decision.
Another hearing for a preliminary injunction, which would delay implementation for a longer period of time in St. Clair County, is scheduled for Jan. 9, according to Katz’s order.

Lexi Cortes is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Lexi Cortes is an investigative reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.