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Knox County sues state over SAFE-T Act

Jane Carlson
Tri States Public Radio
Knox County State's Attorney Jeremy Karlin has joined other Illinois counties in filing a lawsuit declaring the SAFE-T Act unconstitutional.

Knox County State’s Attorney Jeremy Karlin filed a lawsuit in circuit court this week declaring the SAFE-T Act unconstitutional.

Knox County Sheriff David Clague is listed as a plaintiff in the suit.

The nearly 800-page Illinois Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today Act is a sweeping reform of the criminal justice system, covering issues from pre-arrest diversion and pre-trial fairness to use of force sentencing.

“While I would certainly not go as far as to say that we should repeal this act, because it just isn’t going to happen, I think there’s a way to rewrite this resolution, in which everyone can get behind it,” Karlin told the Galesburg city council.

The SAFE-T was signed into law by Gov. JB Pritkzer in January 2021 and will abolish cash bail on Jan. 1, though judges can detain those deemed dangerous.

Karlin, a Democrat, said he supports bail reform --- and believes that one’s freedom should not depend on the size of one’s bank account.

But he said the SAFE-T Act is full of ambiguities, making the prospect of enforcement a challenge across the state, and it also contradicts other parts of state law.

For instance, one Illinois statute gives prosecutor 120 days to bring a case to trial when a person is in custody.

But the SAFE-T Act states they have 90 days.

“You can imagine in any case which involves forensic evidence, any type of DNA testing or any other type of laboratory work, I’m going to need all 120 of those days,” Karlin said.

Rewrite, not repeal

Karlin said prosecutors, public defenders, judges, circuit clerks, and law enforcement are all struggling with interpreting and how to implement the SAFE-T Act.

Without uniform and widely understood guidelines, he said the act will be interpreted differently in all 102 counties.

Galesburg Police Chief Russ Idle said repealing the law is not realistic, but the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police wants to work with law makers to make the wording more clear.

“I would want to know at the end of the day that as law enforcement officials, regardless of our opinions, our responsibility and our oath is to carry out and enforce and perform our acts in the way that the legislature writes it,” Idle said.

Council divided

The Galesburg city council is divided on a resolution supporting efforts to resolve public safety issues related to the SAFE-T Act.

Council members Bradley Hix, Larry Cox, and Wayne Dennis requested the resolution, which was drafted by interim city manager Wayne Carl.

Cox said his major concern is ensuring that victims are protected.

But Fourth Ward council member Dwight White, asked Cox and Hix if they had read the entire bill or knew how many pages were in it – and both said no. Dennis was absent.

“I passed out a summary of what the SAFE-T Act contains, what it’s about, how it’s implemented. You said, Mr. Cox, you said something about the victims. Part of the SAFE-T Act addresses extra help for victims,” White said.

White says the act may not be perfect, but it can be revised. He objected to the use of the word “repeal” in the resolution.

The council voted 4-1 to table the resolution until November, with Hix the nay vote. Sixth Ward council member Sarah Davis was also absent.

Consolidating lawsuits

The SAFE-T Act also reforms police training and requires all departments to use body cameras by 2025.

McDonough County State’s Attorney Matt Kwacala has also filed a lawsuit, saying the SAFE-T Act is unconstitutional.

Karlin said he hopes the lawsuits are consolidated into one county so they can be fast-tracked to the Illinois Supreme Court.

In the meantime, he said his office is doing its best to be ready for January 1st.

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Jane Carlson covers west central Illinois and southeast Iowa for Tri States Public Radio.