Kankakee County judge hears arguments in lawsuit challenging SAFE-T Act

With less than two weeks until it's implementation, dozens of counties are challenging the Illinois SAFE-T Act.

On Tuesday, a hearing was underway in Kankakee County where a judge listened to arguments in a combined lawsuit brought on by prosecutors and sheriffs from more than 60 counties.

Part of the controversial SAFE-T Act — signed by Governor JB Pritzker and set to take effect on January 1 — would eliminate cash bail unless a defendant is facing life in prison.

Supporters of the law say it’s wrong to keep people in jail simply because they can’t afford bail.


Those opposed to the legislation argue it will cause a spike in crime, and that it improperly amends the state constitution.

Lawyers for those who oppose the law say the Constitution "interprets bail, at its core, to include a monetary amount."

"We are a nation of laws, a state of laws and as much as the defendants have touted themselves for passing what they refer to as the most sweeping, most progressive, he most equitable justice reforms in the state’s history, what they have ultimately done is they have spent two years, and what they have to show for it are the most unconstitutional justice reforms in the state’s and perhaps the nation’s history," said Kankakee County State’s Attorney Jim Rowe.

Kankakee County Chief Judge Thomas W. Cunnington says he will make a decision by December 28 — an effort he called a "monumental task."

Rowe urged Cunnington to send the law back to the Illinois General Assembly, where he said lawmakers would then be forced to pass its provisions "the right way, the safe way."

Darren Kinkead of the Illinois Attorney General’s office argued that Rowe and a collection of prosecutors and sheriffs, who are suing to stop the law, have "very strong feelings." But he said they boiled down to a policy disagreement, not a legitimate legal dispute.

Rowe countered that, if it were that simple, "we would do nothing in this courthouse but sue Springfield over bad ideas." Rather, he said the SAFE-T Act is "wholly unconstitutional."

Throughout his argument, Rowe repeatedly waved the nearly 800-page law in the air and dropped it on a table in the courtroom. He did the same with a recent 300-page amendment passed by the Legislature. Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow joined Rowe at the counsel table in the well of the courtroom but did not argue before the judge.

Cunnington kept a straight face as he listened to the arguments of Rowe and Kinkead at the Kankakee County courthouse. He asked just a few questions to clarify technical points. When all was said and done, he complimented the attorneys and commented on the work ahead of him.

"It is a monumental task to come up with a decision that has so many moving parts," Cunnington said. He added that "some are more complicated than others" and "require more thought and more research."

Starting Jan. 1, judges are expected to decide whether defendants charged after the start of the year will be locked up while awaiting trial based on their alleged crime and whether they pose a threat or are likely to flee.

Supporters say the law is intended to address long-standing public safety issues, police distrust and a system that lets wealthy defendants buy their way out of jail. It was harshly criticized throughout the 2022 election campaign. But Kinkead reacted Tuesday to a claim that the law was unpopular by noting that "recent election results" suggested otherwise.

Rowe shot back that "they won this election because they lied about what was in [the law]. They told lies for months and months and months."

Tuesday’s arguments otherwise revolved around whether the law met constitutional muster. Touching on a passage in the state Constitution that says "all persons shall be bailable by sufficient sureties," Rowe insisted that Illinois judges should be allowed to set bail involving money.

"The law that the defendants have passed have taken all of those powers away from you," Rowe told Cunnington. He repeatedly told the judge that the Legislature "put its hand on your gavel."

As expected, Kinkead argued that the "sufficient sureties" passage bestows a right on criminal defendants, not sheriffs and prosecutors, meaning Rowe and the other plaintiffs couldn’t successfully sue to vindicate it.

Rowe additionally argued that the law was unconstitutionally vague and that it violated the constitutional rights of crime victims. He said it improperly addresses multiple subjects and violates the separation of powers. And he said the lawmakers who passed it violated a rule requiring them to read bills "on three different days" in each legislative chamber.

Kinkead countered that lawmakers must "go very far" before they actually violate the so-called single-subject rule. And he said the separation-of-powers doctrine does not mean "that powers cannot overlap."

Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.