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Advocates plan to use bail reform to protect victims of domestic, sexual violence

Madeleine Behr of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation outside the organization’s Loop offices.
Ashlee Rezin
Chicago Sun Times
Madeleine Behr of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation outside the organization’s Loop offices.

Over and over, a woman who lost a daughter to domestic violence talked of how the criminal justice system “just didn’t care,” repeatedly releasing a man from jail until police say he finally made good on his threats.

“I think that if they take it seriously the first time then, the people, the perpetrators won’t so easily keep doing what they do,” said the woman, who asked not to be named. “If they would have taken it seriously the first time and especially the second time… They just didn’t care enough.”

Advocates say the bail reform that takes effect Monday should make victims of domestic and sexual violence safer — if prosecutors and judges take full advantage of the law.

Under the Pretrial Fairness Act, judges no longer will be able to require people to post money in order to be released ahead of trial. But the law allows people to be jailed, possibly until their trial, if they are charged with violent crimes like sexual assault and domestic attacks.

“This prioritizes risk over money,” said Christine Raffaele of the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “Money never made anybody safe.”

Bail hearings sometimes last just minutes as judges typically have a long call sheet of cases before them. It is not uncommon for someone to appear in a domestic violence case after that person was released from jail for a previous domestic charge.

Under the new law, people charged with domestic and sexual violence can be held for up to 48 hours before a court hearing must be held on whether they should be detained.

Advocates say that should allow time for the victim to speak with prosecutors or meet with a probation officer to help assess the risk of releasing the person who has been charged.

Courthouse officials expect many of the cases up for detention will involve domestic violence. That’s because both misdemeanor and felony domestic violence charges are listed under the law as detainable.

“We’re finally going to have a system that centers survivors more and takes the time to review their cases, hear back from them, notify them about what the circumstances are of their cases or what decisions are being made and how they can contribute,” said Madeleine Behr of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation.

The law was supported by the Network, a coalition of several advocacy groups, as well as the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation and the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Amanda Pyron, executive director of the Network, said it was crucial that victims were included in the decision-making process.

“We want to make sure that the system is consulting with the experts, people who have to go home right after their court appointment, people who have to stay in a house after the police leave,” she said. “Those are the folks who are managing minute by minute to keep themselves, their children and their family safe.”

In the weeks leading up to the law taking effect, the advocacy groups have hosted training sessions and participated in two courthouse walk-throughs in Cook County to see how cases will move through the system.

“Everyone has to be focused on day one,” Pyron said, “recommending decisions to the judge and making sure that the law is implemented as intended. The staffing has to be there, the resources have to be there. And the knowledge has to be there.”

Advocates say they will also be watching whether victims are given timely notification of any hearings or decisions about someone being released from jail, enough time to create a plan for their safety.

“I think the perception has always been, broadly in the public and media, even in our television shows, that victims always get served best by prosecutors and police and they’re always treated well,” said Behr. “And the unfortunate fact is, that’s not the reality. So it’s really important … to make sure that their rights are upheld and a lot of those rights include being notified of hearings... to make sure that victims have the opportunity to participate.”

Pyron agreed that it is crucial “survivors who are at greatest risk have notice and the ability to communicate with an advocate or a prosecutor so that they can plan for their safety and so that we could potentially reduce the number of domestic violence homicides that we’re seeing.”

Under the law, any violation of a protective order would prompt a mandatory hearing on revoking release. Such a violation is the only offense under the new law that requires prosecutors to seek detention.

“There’s very little enforcement of violation of protective orders right now,” Raffaele said. “But we felt very strongly that if somebody was released, but there was a protection order, then that should be an immediate revocation if they violated that protection order.”

The law also establishes a legal standard for judges to determine whether a victim can be called into court to testify at a detention hearing.

Lake County State’s Attorney Eric Rinehart said this particular portion of the law has been greatly misunderstood.

“Everybody went real sideways on this point, they all said, ‘Oh, now under the SAFE-T Act, crime victims will be hauled into court,” Rinehart told the Sun-Times. “Today, there’s no restriction on hauling crime victims into court with a subpoena. The SAFE-T creates a process where a judge can quash that subpoena.”

Rinehart was one of two state prosecutors, along with Cook County’s Kim Foxx, who supported passage of the SAFE-T Act, which includes the bail reform measures. But he notes he did not sign on until every major victim advocacy group had expressed support for the law.

“Whether to hold people when they are presumed innocent in local jails before we have their trial is a really hard question that we’ve been dealing with for hundreds of years,” Rinehart said. “However hard that question is, the answer cannot be and should not be access to cash.

“We will never again have to tell a survivor of a violent crime, ‘We don’t know whether your offender will find money,’’’ he said.

In Lake County, Rinehart said the state attorney’s office is preparing to do a lot more work at the beginning of a case. His office has invested extra resources to move up victim contact and provide additional training for the felony review unit.

Advocates said they will be offering legal help to victims and will be monitoring court proceedings to ensure judges and prosecutors are following provisions set up to protect victims.

“We want to make sure that the state attorney’s office is notifying victims, that victims are participating when they want, that that information is being relayed to judges, that judges are considering that information and addressing the needs of victims through the process,” Pyron said. “And that if there are conditions necessary on release, or if a person needs to be detained, that those decisions are being made appropriately.”