SAFE-T Act Exacerbates Public Defender Shortage in Illinois

The controversial abolishment of cash bail in Illinois is having far-reaching affects already, with the majority of Illinois’ 102 counties facing disparate resource challenges. By law (which hasn’t been updated since 1949), only counties with 35,000 or more residents are required to set up offices of public defender in Illinois. And those are not required to be full time. 

More than half of Illinois’ counties do not have full-time public defenders. In August, the Illinois Supreme Court issued an order allowing pretrial hearings to take place remotely for six months. Without this ability to use technology for pretrial hearings, many small counties would not be able to comply with the Pretrial Fairness Act’s requirement that arrestees appear in front of a judge within 48 hours. 

Public defenders are already stretched thin all across the state, and now they will be even further strained. In St. Clair County, five full-time attorneys in the office were each handling more than 350 cases in 2022. That is more than double the American Bar Association’s recommended guideline of 150. Attorneys in that office have had their caseloads lowered since that time, however, they are expected to climb again as in custody defendants can petition to be released under the Pretrial Fairness Act. 

This summer, the St. Clair County Public Defender’s Office termed the end of cash bail as ‘a massive revolutionary change in our law.’ Under the new law, public defenders need to respond more quickly, and the department needs more staff to keep up.

Law enforcement shall issue a citation in lieu of custodial arrest, upon proper identification, for those accused of any offense that is not a felony or Class A misdemeanor unless (i) a law enforcement officer reasonably believes the accused poses a threat to the community or any person, (ii) a custodial arrest is necessary because the criminal activity persists after the issuance of a citation, or (iii) the accused has an obvious medical or mental health issue that poses a risk to the accused’s own safety. Nothing in this Section requires arrest in the case of Class A misdemeanor and felony offenses, or otherwise limits existing law enforcement discretion to decline to effect a custodial arrest. The following offenses could, at a judge’s discretion, detain a defendant pending trial: domestic battery, stalking, predatory criminal sexual assault, violations of orders of protection, many gun charges, and murder. 

Funding for additional public defenders was appropriated as part of the Pretrial Fairness Act, but it wasn’t as much as hoped, at least in St. Clair County. Outside of Cook County, the state’s 101 counties are each receiving between $77,000 and $147,555 to beef up public defender staffing. 

But with county offices already pushed to the limit and needing additional resources, it is fair to question how well the staffing issues will be addressed moving forward. Democrats cheered and championed the SAFE-T Act at every turn, but did they consider all of its ramifications? Now with the elimination of cash bail in Illinois, the financial resources needed to handle the new law are also presenting big challenges.