By Marcia M. Meis, Director of the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts
On January 1, 2023, Illinois will become the first state in the nation to eliminate cash bail pursuant to the General Assembly’s passage and the Governor’s signing of the SAFE-T Act. In order to fulfill the mandates contained in the Pretrial Fairness Act component of this Act, it will be imperative for Illinois to have a statewide legal and evidence-based pretrial system in place to fully support law enforcement, the judiciary and other system stakeholders in making appropriate and informed pretrial release decisions and supervising defendants released into the community.
Our state’s current system for pretrial services is detailed in the Pretrial Services Act that went into effect on July 1, 1987. This statute provides that: “Each circuit court shall establish a pretrial services agency to provide the court with accurate background data regarding the pretrial release of persons charged with felonies and effective supervision of compliance with the terms and conditions on release.” During the 34 years since the passage of the Act, much of our state remains without a pretrial services agency, as the majority of Illinois circuit courts do not have sufficient local resources to comply with the requirements of the Act.
This unmet need was a primary driver of the Illinois Supreme Court’s announcement last month regarding the creation of a statewide operational structure for pretrial services in adult criminal proceedings. The Court, with assistance from the Supreme Court Pretrial Practices Implementation Task Force (Task Force), considered several different models for pretrial services once the SAFE-T Act is fully effective. In the end, the Court determined that placing the operational structure for pretrial services under the supervision of the AOIC, and doing so in a phased approach, will best achieve more equitable statewide pretrial practices and ease the burden on counties facing unfunded mandates and decreased revenue with the elimination of cash bail. The Court also seeks to ensure through this structure that the procedures used in circuit courts throughout Illinois are fair, efficient, transparent, accountable and adequately resourced using legal and evidence-based practices.
The transition of pretrial services to a statewide office is envisioned to be completed in three phases. The first phase will include the 50-plus counties that currently operate with minimal or no pretrial services, as well as any other counties that currently have pretrial services and wish to join the state system by Jan. 1, 2023. Counties with limited pretrial services will comprise phase two and will join the state system by Jan. 1, 2024. Remaining counties with more robust pretrial services make up phase three and will join the state system by Jan. 1, 2025.
Considerable work is already underway to build this new operational structure for statewide pretrial services. The Illinois Supreme Court has named former Circuit Court of Cook County Judge Cara LeFevour Smith as Director of the new Office of Statewide Pretrial Services and Wendy Venvertloh as Deputy Director. Judge LeFevour Smith has served as a Cook County Circuit Judge since 2019, starting in the First Municipal District and then the Juvenile Justice Division. She served as chief policy advisor to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart before joining the bench. Wendy Venvertloh was previously the AOIC’s Pretrial Services Administrator. She started her career in 1999 with Adams County Probation with her most recent position there as the Director of Probation and Court Services. As a part of her time in Adams County, she oversaw the establishment and then continued operations of that county’s Pretrial Department. The leadership team also includes Sharjeel (Sarge) Rizvi. Prior to joining the AOIC in 2020 as Pretrial Services Manager, Sarge served as a pretrial practitioner in Kankakee County and McLean County. Sarge excels in his knowledge and experience of legal and evidence-based pretrial practices and now serves as Pretrial Services Administrator.
This new office is a historic initiative designed to fulfill the requirements of the likewise historic SAFE-T Act. Plans for staffing, infrastructure, and training are already under development and there is much work to be completed on many other fronts to have Phase 1 ready for the elimination of cash bail which will be effective January 1, 2023. Listening tours throughout the state are being scheduled to meet with local justice system stakeholders and hear their questions and feedback regarding this massive undertaking. The Court strongly encourages the participation and input of judges, attorneys, pretrial practitioners, state and local law enforcement agencies, persons with lived experience in the criminal justice system, and crime victim service organizations. In order to make this outreach effort informative and impactful for all, we need to hear from everyone.
Through this move to a statewide pretrial services system, the Supreme Court has demonstrated its commitment to provide a structure that can support the mandates of the SAFE-T Act and do so in a manner that fosters public safety while ensuring constitutional safeguards.