The truth behind the “Purge Act”

Jan. 1, 2023. Chaos sweeps the streets of Chicago. Criminals are on the loose. The police are powerless to stop them, and society itself begins to collapse. Looting and rioting run rampant. The city descends into anarchy.

This image has been painted into the minds of many Americans by various conservative organizations and figures as a response to the Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today Act, better known as the SAFE-T Act. This major criminal justice reform law was introduced by Illinois’ Legislative Black Caucus after the 2020 murder of George Floyd by police and the protests that swept the country in its wake.

The SAFE-T Act was signed into law in 2021, but a number of major provisions will not be applied until Jan. 1 in order to give the justice system time to adjust. As of this writing, lawmakers were planning to fine-tune some of its provisions during a legislative session in Springfield.

The act was a political focal point during the midterm elections, and has been lampooned by various conservative news outlets and figures. The City Journal, a conservative news outlet based in New York, called it the “UN-SAFE-T Act”, and former Cook County prosecutor Dan Kirk claimed the act was a “get out of jail free card.” American television host and political commentator Tucker Carlson claimed the act “legalized violent crime.” Why is the SAFE-T Act so controversial? And will it really lead to the downfall of civil society in Illinois?

The SAFE-T Act is a broad piece of legislation designed to fix issues present in all of the institutions in the justice system, including policing, pretrial and corrections (jails and prisons). The provisions are numerous, but some notable ones include laws designed to reduce the use of police force. The act bans potentially lethal chokeholds, requires officers to offer medical aid after using force, requires other officers to intervene if excessive force is being used and bans various pieces of high-grade military equipment.

The act also expands the decertification processes for problematic officers, increases penalties for tampering with body cameras, bans the destruction of police misconduct records, expands crime statistics reporting to a monthly basis, provides confidential mental health screening for officers and enhances automatic and discretionary termination of officers. These are just a few of the provisions designed to reform the system of policing in Illinois, but one in particular has come under fire from conservatives. On Jan. 1 cash bail will no longer be used in Illinois, courtesy of the SAFE-T Act. Under current law, people who have been arrested do not have to wait for their trials in jail—if they can afford cash bail. Critics of this system have argued it unfairly targets poor defendants.

The decision to eliminate cash bail is controversial, with many claiming the legal language is too vague and limiting. Other detractors, including some vocal conservatives, believe the abolition of cash bail risks the safety of citizens.

Illinois Gov. J.B Pritzker signed the bill into law in February of 2021 and defended the provision. “As I’ve said many times, what we want to make sure doesn’t happen is that someone who’s wealthy and commits a terrible violent crime—it could be, by the way, a wealthy drug dealer—doesn’t have an easy time getting bail compared to somebody who maybe commits shoplifting and for a couple of hundred dollars is stuck in jail,” said Pritzker.

Some conservatives have focused on the controversy of cash bail to misrepresent the effects of the SAFE-T Act as a whole. Gianno Caldwell of the New York Post wrote in an opinion piece, “The unbelievable will soon happen in my home state of Illinois. On Jan. 1, 2023, at midnight, a very real version of “The Purge” will be enacted via the 2021 SAFE-T Act law.” “The Purge” refers to a series of movies in which all crime is legal for one day out of the year in the United States.

Comparing the abolition of cash bail to uncontrolled chaos is disingenuous and purposely misleading. The elimination of cash bail is a significant change and understandably controversial. However, portraying the SAFE-T Act as legal anarchy is nothing short of malicious, and is consequently overshadowing the legitimate accomplishments of the act. The SAFE-T Act has significantly reformed Illinois’s justice system in many positive ways, but this fact is being put on the back burner due to the concentrated efforts of certain conservative news outlets opting to misrepresent the law as a whole.

The false portrayal of the act is unethical, and ultimately covers up legitimate police reform enacted as a response to national protests.