There’s no ‘Purge Law’: Debunking right-wing propaganda about the SAFE-T Act

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Republican officials and fake news sites are fomenting a misinformation campaign against the SAFE-T Act in Illinois. Illustration by Verónica Martinez through InJustice Watch.

By Carlos Ballesteros, InJustice Watch

Over the last couple of weeks, a misinformation campaign against a pivotal criminal justice reform law has taken hold across Illinois.

Gov. JB Pritzker signed the Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today Act, known as the SAFE-T Act, into law last year. Parts of the law have already gone into effect, but starting Jan. 1, the SAFE-T Act will abolish cash bail across the state. Once in effect, a defendant can only be detained in jail pretrial if they’re charged with specific types of felonies, such as murder and sexual assault, and if prosecutors prove to a judge that a defendant is a flight risk or “poses a specific, real, and present threat to any person or the community.”

Proponents of the SAFE-T Act say it will keep people who are presumed innocent from having to fight their cases from behind bars and lower jail populations across the state. Research shows that spending even a few days in jail makes it more likely for a defendant to end up homeless, unemployed, or rearrested — even if they’re not convicted. (Last year, more than one-third of felony cases in Cook County were dropped or ended in acquittal.) And advocates say pretrial detention is overused, as court data shows that the vast majority of people released from custody pretrial end up making all of their court dates.

But in an attempt to derail the SAFE-T Act’s implementation next year, Republican officials and their allies have incessantly spread myths, half-truths, and obvious falsehoods about the SAFE-T Act.

Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin wrote in a letter to the editor published in the Chicago Tribune last week that the law will “give drug cartels free rein on Illinois’ streets.” Will County State’s Attorney Jim Glasgow said dozens of people accused of murder will be released from his county’s jail as soon as the law goes into effect. And in a melodramatic speech that’s garnered hundreds of thousands of views online, Orland Park Mayor Keith Pekau warned that under the SAFE-T Act, “someone could decide to live in your shed, and all we can do is give them a ticket.”

“We must not allow this law to stand as passed,” urged Pekau, who’s running as the Republican nominee for Illinois’ 6th Congressional District in November.

This misinformation has been amplified by viral TikTok and YouTube videos that have branded the SAFE-T Act as the “Purge Law,” a reference to the popular Hollywood horror franchise in which all crime is legal and police are sidelined while feral criminals take over.

In an effort to stop the spread of misinformation, Injustice Watch reviewed some of the most widespread claims being made about the SAFE-T Act.

CLAIM: On Jan. 1, jails will be emptied out of people charged with murder who are held on money bonds.

FACT: The SAFE-T Act doesn’t explicitly address what will happen to people currently incarcerated on money bonds on Jan. 1. But prosecutors have the ability under the law to petition for people charged with murder and other violent crimes to be jailed pretrial. Currently, those people would already be released if they came up with the money for bail. Also, under the current law, prosecutors such as Glasgow could have filed motions for people charged with serious violent crimes to be detained without bail, said Sharlyn Grace, a senior policy adviser for the Cook County public defender’s office. In Cook County, prosecutors, public defenders, and judges are working together to plan for the transition to an “in-or-out” system starting Jan. 1, Grace said.

CLAIM: The SAFE-T Act creates “nondetainable” offenses, including second-degree murder, burglary, aggravated battery, and other violent charges.

FACT: The SAFE-T Act outlines the types of offenses for which someone can be detained pretrial, which includes forcible felonies, such as first-degree murder and sexual assault, in which a prison sentence is required if someone is convicted. Many of the act’s detractors have used this to suggest that any crime that isn’t explicitly outlined in the bill’s text, including second-degree murder, arson, and burglary, are “nondetainable” offenses.

But that’s not accurate.

People accused of those charges can still be held pretrial if a judge determines that they are a flight risk, if they are in violation of their parole or probation, or if they are already on pretrial release for a previous charge.

Also, people accused of committing a crime such as robbery or burglary with a gun are often also charged with gun crimes, such as aggravated unlawful use of a weapon. Under the SAFE-T Act, anyone charged with gun crimes can be detained pretrial if a judge determines that they pose a safety risk to a specific person.

CLAIM: The SAFE-T Act prohibits police officers from arresting someone for trespassing.

FACT: The SAFE-T Act does require police officers to ticket people accused of low-level offenses, including criminal trespass to property, unless they pose an obvious threat to themselves or the community. That means police officers still have the discretion to arrest someone if they determine that they threaten public safety.

CLAIM: The SAFE-T Act will usher in a “Purge” era in Illinois, in which criminals will roam free and police can’t do anything to stop them.

FACT: This is patently untrue. The SAFE-T Act does not stop police from arresting people for crimes. The SAFE-T Act does, however, require police officers to provide aid after using force and requires officers to intervene if other officers use unauthorized or excessive force.

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