The state legislative debate last week over amending the Pre-Trial Fairness Act provisions within the controversial SAFE-T Act featured many of the same obfuscations and outright misinformation that characterized the fall campaign by Republicans and many of the same insufficient answers by Democrats.
One of the problems that the super-majority Democrats have in both chambers is that when they know their bill is going to pass, they usually don’t take the Republicans’ objections seriously enough to fully engage with them. But on bills like this, misinformation can spread when points aren’t adequately rebutted.
For just one example, during the House debate, Republican Leader Jim Durkin and his leadership successor, Representative Tony McCombie (R-Savanna), repeatedly blasted the Democrats at length for forcing victims of violent crime, via the Pre-Trial Fairness Act, to be dragged into court for hearings within 48 hours of an arrest.
Leader Durkin has been making this argument in public venues for months, so the Democrats had to know this was coming.
Durkin appeared furious that the Democrats didn’t fix what he claimed was their egregious mistake in drafting the original bill back in 2021, and claimed it directly violated the Illinois Constitution’s protections for crime victims. He predicted that it would have a horrible impact on victims by victimizing them all over again.
But the only answer provided by the sponsor, Representative Justin Slaughter (D-Chicago), was that some victims’ rights organizations supported the law.
Representative McCombie amped up the rhetoric even further than Durkin by asking if her eight-year-old niece was abducted by two men, brutally raped, buried alive, and rescued, then would she be compelled to go to court for a detention hearing.
After saying that the bill “didn’t make that possible,” Representative Slaughter then said the law would make it more difficult for that to happen. McCombie said what Slaughter claimed wasn’t true, and that claim was followed by more emotional and unenlightening back and forth.
Slaughter was right, but the actual explanation he could’ve offered and didn’t is pretty simple. Before the Pre-Trial Fairness Act, judges were given full discretion to compel a victim to appear at a hearing on a defendant’s culpability and dangerousness. That’s no longer the case.
The law was changed in 2021 to force judges to explain why they were granting a request, and then they could “only grant the request if the court finds by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant will be materially prejudiced if the complaining witness does not appear.” That’s one reason why victims’ rights groups supported the overall reforms.
Before the changes were first made in 2021, judges were admonished to “be considerate of the emotional and physical well-being of the witness,” and that particular statutory language was not altered.
The Pre-Trial Fairness Act even eliminated previous statutory language which gave accused criminals “the right to present witnesses in his favor” at those hearings. So to claim that this revision is a horrific sop to accused violent criminals just doesn’t make sense.
The Democrats decided to exclude legislative Republicans from the revision talks, perhaps because they believed that the GOP was more interested in theater than responsibly negotiating the new bill. Rarely does one negotiate with someone who will undoubtedly wind up being a hard and public “No.” That’s understandable on one level. I get it.
But again, this problem is not just about the Pre-Trial Fairness Act or the SAFE-T Act. Time and time again, I’ve watched the Democrats stand mute while Republicans lambasted their legislation, drafted without GOP input, and then jammed it through with their superior numbers. It’s an arrogance of power and it resulted in a whole lot of scrambling during this past election season as wild claims were made about the bill they had passed.
On the other side, though, the fact that this amendment was not officially opposed by any statewide law-enforcement groups (which tend to be dominated by Republicans) should’ve prompted an attempt by at least some legislative Republicans to find common ground and maybe steer the end-product even further their direction. Maybe they just didn’t have anyone who was open-minded enough or who was brave enough to confront their fellow Republicans by negotiating. Neither is a good sign.
I guess what I’m arguing for here is more respect by both parties for each other, for the legislative process, and for the state we all inhabit and the people they all represent.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.