What Does Justice Look Like?

By Anna Gifford, ACE Steering Committee Member

An event takes place. A reaction occurs. Both become newsworthy. The cycle repeats over and over again across the country, each incident as horrifying as the last.

Back in the day, injustices and unfairness might have prompted churchgoers and those who believed in the “golden rule” to speak out. Today, it seems there are more voices, and those who are speaking out are louder and are moving into positions that provide them the opportunities to make changes.

The SAFE-T Act is a result of that momentum. Originally known as Illinois House Bill 3653, the SAFE-T Act is an acronym for safety, accountability, fairness, and equity today and was signed into law by Governor J.B. Pritzker on February 22. There are several items in this omnibus legislation of particular interest to me, primarily that it establishes basic standards and policies so law enforcement members know the guidelines and policies for which they are responsible. This law makes them more clear and removes ambiguity.

The Institute for Illinois’ Fiscal Sustainability at the Civic Foundation has a nonpartisan summary on the SAFE-T Act on its website, which contains more information than what I can feature here. The text of the full bill can be found here.

As a feminist, I have fought for many causes for women. Did you know the most impacted group of individuals this law benefits is women of color? Women, in particular, bear the brunt of unfair practices, writes Savanna Jones in “Ending Cash Bail is a Women’s Rights Issue.” They are generally less able to pay to be released and more susceptible to abuse, including inadequate health care (particularly for pregnant detainees), sexual abuse, and COVID-19 infections. As the likely caretakers of their children, when mothers are detained, it has devastating consequences on the entire family. When these mothers are also the breadwinners, their children can find themselves displaced, causing trauma that can last for years. Even when it is their partner who is detained, the effects on women and children are severe and include increased poverty and fear of the legal system.

This bill provides anyone the right to communicate with an attorney and family members, and they will have the right to retrieve contact information from their phones before the phones are placed into inventory. It abolishes the requirement of posting cash bail and replaces it with alternatives for release. This bill also requires training on the medical and mental health care issues of pregnant prisoners. Newborns will be allowed to remain with their mothers for at least 72 hours and both will be provided access to any nutritional or hygiene-related products necessary to care for the infants.

I believe we need this bill because we must stop viewing people as criminals based on the color of their skin. It is unjust and unfair to jail someone not yet convicted of a crime. We need to stop seeing people as more dangerous based on their race. When used as a model for law enforcement reform, this law can make a difference for women, not just here in Illinois, but across the country.

Anna Gifford is president of the McHenry County Chapter of NOW, secretary and treasurer of the League of Women Voters-McHenry County, and a member of the ACE Steering Committee. She also volunteers for Senior Services Associates and is a member of the Latino Leadership Network of McHenry County, as well as a partner in Healing Racism—Continuing the Conversation.

For more information on this issue…

ACE hosted a panel discussion with a state representative, members of law enforcement, and community activists to talk about this bill on 3/21/21 on Zoom. Rep. Anne Stava-Murray (IL-81), Regina Brent and Paul Scott from Unity Partnership, DuPage County Sheriff James Mendrick, and Naperville Police Chief Robert Marshall were panelists. Watch “IL H.B. 3653: Criminal Justice and Police Reform Bill.”