Kane County officials say they can't afford to make justice system reforms

Having decided not to ask voters if they would support justice system reforms with a new sales tax, Kane County Board members will instead ask the chief judge and state's attorney to make the reforms less expensive.

Most of Kane County's elected officials support the ideas behind the state's SAFE-T Act. The 2021 state legislation attempts to address racial and economic bias in the system by eliminating cash bail and requiring peace officers to wear body cameras, among other reforms. But it supplies no new funding to implement what most agree are major and costly changes to the legal system.

Elected officials in Kane County's justice system are asking for 116 new employees over the next few years to deal with reviewing hours of camera footage and in-depth reviews of who must be held in jail or can be released while awaiting trial.

Those new employees will blow a hole into the county's budget that will increase by about $13 million annually for the next three years. That's left county board members scrambling to figure out how to find new money to pay for those ongoing future expenses.

Some Republican board members have considered the possibility of ignoring the mandate and seeing what the consequences are. The belief is most counties will find they can't find either the money or the additional staff to meet the implementation timeline. If everyone fails, that might push state lawmakers into amending the law.

"The SAFE-T Act is totally fiscally irresponsible," said county board member John Martin. "You're not going to get the people of Kane County to come up with enough money to support every nickel and dime of that statute. I understand there is no will in Springfield to change this. They're going to see as many counties as there are in Illinois (102) all laying on their back with their paws up because this is not feasible fiscally."

After failing in their push to get a sales tax referendum on the ballot to support the reforms, Democrats on the board now seem to be coming around to the GOP viewpoint. But instead of throwing it back to the state, they want the solution to come from to the county court system.

Several Democrats on the board suggested for the first time that State's Attorney Jamie Mosser, who is also a Democrat, is asking for too much in the way of new employees and office space.

"Why are we hiring so many people?" county board Chair Corinne Pierog asked. "Similar counties are not asking for that amount of individuals to support the SAFE-T Act. We don't want to be bankrupt. Can it be a slower process so we can afford it?"

Neither Mosser nor any other member of the judicial system was present to answer those questions. That fueled bipartisan agreement on the county board to call on Mosser, Chief Judge Clint Hull and other independent elected officials in the court system to find a "bare bones" way to address the state mandate.

That discussion will happen at the next meeting of the county board's judicial and public safety committee on Sept. 15.

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