Illinois lawmakers want changes to SAFE-T Act to avoid criminals ‘slipping through the cracks’

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DeKalb County Sheriff's Office, Illinois | Facebook

The SAFE-T Act is again making headlines in Illinois with the pretrial release of an individual accused of being under the influence and crashing his vehicle into a sheriff’s deputy’s vehicle, killing her.

State Rep. Dennis Tipsword, R-Metamora, who also serves as the Woodford county chief deputy sheriff, said what Nathan Sweeney, 44, who was apprehended following the death of Dekalb County deputy Christina Musil, did was on the list of detainable offenses. Sweeney, however, was released with the judge citing the SAFE-T Act.

“Reckless homicide is a detainable offense. However, it is very clear in the SAFE-T act that every person is expected to be released unless there are clear and convincing reasons they should be held. Two of those are a danger to society or a flight risk,” Tipsword told The Center Square. “A person who is on that combination of narcotics is inherently a danger to society. If he’s already flagrantly violating the laws to where he’s on that kind of a cocktail of drugs, how can we believe he’s not going to go out the day after and do the same thing. This was just a head shaker. This person should have been detained.”

Sweeney was allegedly on cocaine, fentanyl and morphine when crashing into the deputy’s car and ultimately ending her life, authorities said.

Tipsword said the release was likely due to the prosecution not being able to prove that Sweeney was either a danger to society or a flight risk.

State Rep. Kam Buckner, D-Chicago, said he’s glad Republicans have created the working group called Truth in Public Safety, or TIPS.

“The SAFE-T act is not perfect but it can be perfected,” Buckner told The Center Square. “We have put together a few trailer bills that have changed some of the language [within the SAFE-T act] based on what we’re seeing in the criminal justice space. If there are ways to strengthen this law and keep folks safer and make sure people aren’t slipping through the cracks and we are maintaining the spirit of what we tried to do with this bill, now four years ago, then we should absolutely do it.”

Republican members of the TIPS working group have unveiled a flurry of bills like House Bill 5120, which would expand detainable offenses pending trial based on the severity of the offense and determination of whether the defendant poses a real threat to individuals or the community. Tipsword said all of the bills have fallen on deaf ears.

“They’re not interested. Our No. 1 argument is that there needs to be more crimes on the detention list and that would get those prosecutors and those judges to really hear if someone is a danger to society,” said Tipsword. “Likewise, I think those two things should be held independently. If someone is a danger to society it doesn’t matter what crime they committed. They should be held because if you put them back on the street, they’re going to create more victims.”

Tipsword said the goal is to move these bills in the next couple of weeks, but so far there’s been no movement. Democrats justify the SAFE-T Act and say it allows judges to have more judicial discretion, he said.

“As the SAFE-T Act was going through, it was passed a couple weeks before I was seated here, but as a lifelong police officer I was very interested in what was going to happen and I kept hearing the Democrats saying ‘this law would give more judicial discretion to our judges so they could hear and decide who are the most dangerous criminals.’ That’s the furthest thing from the truth because unless a person commits one of those detainable offenses, they could have their plane tickets bought, but if they don’t commit a detainable offense the prosecution can’t even show they are a flight risk. So the judge never hears it,” said Tipsword.

Buckner said the SAFE-T Act does give a lot of discretion to judges.

“It gives judges the ability to make recommendations and look at the totality of the circumstances to see whether or not someone should be held in detention pretrial. We did that on purpose. We did that to empower the bench and the judiciary to work in a way that was going to create a better, safer system. I think a lot of what has to happen now is more education for judges making sure they align with the legislative intent of the bill and I think we will get there,” said Buckner.

The Republican working group is also pushing House Bill 5121, which would enable revocation of a defendant’s pretrial release if the defendant is charged with a new offense, and House Bill 5126, which would revert back to pre-SAFE-T Act processes of the court issuing a warrant for a defendant’s failure to appear in court.

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