Sweeping criminal justice reforms in Illionois have had "overwhelmingly negative" effects, a small town sheriff in the southern part of the state said a year after the law was implemented.
"These kinds of reforms and this kind of constant police-bashing rhetoric that we hear out of these – I'll just say it – out of these Marxist folks, it's having the intended result that they truly want," Jefferson County Sheriff Jeff Bullard told Fox News. "They're wanting to damage the policing profession and they're having some success at it."
"Policing leaders need to step up and stand against it," he added. "Very loud, very vocal, very strongly."
The Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today (SAFE-T) Act, which took effect on Jan. 1, 2023, overhauled Illinois' justice system with provisions that granted more freedoms to defendants and reduced certain felonies to misdemeanors. It also lowered the severity of some misdemeanors, like trespassing, and eliminated cash bail across the state.
Bullard said some of the problems he and other law enforcement leaders opposed to the SAFE-T Act predicted are coming to pass.
"You can see things in the law, when you look at individual factors of it, that this law was generated out of a mistrust for law enforcement," he told Fox News. "So any rhetoric that would say it was to benefit law enforcement, I believe is disingenuous."
The law includes reforms that streamline the process to revoke an officer's license, allowing investigations into anonymous complaints against officers and banning the destruction of police misconduct records.
Bullard said the "convoluted" changes have officers across the state feeling "uneasy" while doing their jobs.
"Even in your most secure agency, you're still going to have officers that are going to be a little bit queasy about it," he said.
So far, Jefferson County has met every statute deadline in the 764-page law, but with many more changes down the road, the southern county hired a law firm to help with policy procedure review in fiscal year 2024. The cost is a significant line item in the small, rural county’s budget, Bullard said.
Local officials hired the firm "to make sure that we can keep up with all the requirements that not only the SAFE-T Act has proposed, but other Illinois statutes and laws that have not been police friendly over the years," he said.
The SAFE-T Act’s most controversial provision, abolishing cash bail, was delayed due to legal challenges over its constitutionality, but the Illinois Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of the reform. It took effect Sept. 18, making Illinois the first state to fully eliminate cash bail.
Under the new law, defendants can't be required to post bail to be released from jail as they await trial unless a judge determines them a threat to the public or a flight risk.
Bullard said 153 of 280 arrestees brought into his jail since Sept. 18 were processed and released immediately. Another 55 were released within a week.
"It was some drug offenses, some violent offenses and some DUI charges all released without having to post any kind of bond," he said. "You see a significant amount of offenders being placed relatively quickly back out into society."
The Jefferson County Circuit Clerk's office has seen a 45% reduction in fees collected since the new system took effect, according to Bullard.
In a previous interview, Orland Park Mayor Keith Pekau told Fox News: "When I said that this is the most dangerous law I've ever seen, I believe that."
Bullard said progressive reforms like the SAFE-T Act are a "demoralization strategy" by left-wing politicians to get those in law enforcement to leave the profession "or to just drop back and not do much – basically be retired on duty."
"Make the profession undesirable to where it starts becoming harder and harder, especially for local agencies, to recruit and retain people," Bullard said.
In 2022, members of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police ranked "recruitment and retention" as their number one challenge in a statewide survey, with 60% of agencies saying they were not fully staffed.
In July, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law a bill allowing non-U.S. citizens in Illinois to become police officers as of Jan. 1 to help with staffing shortages. Additionally, the Illinois State Police changed its pre-employment requirements in September, creating more pathways to become a trooper in hopes of attracting more applicants.
"We're hoping that somewhere along the way, good reason takes over and they realize the problems that they're causing," Bullard said of Democratic lawmakers pushing these laws.
Until then, he said law enforcement leaders need to try to ignore the politics and "put the public they serve first."
"I can still go make traffic stops. I can still get in foot pursuits. If they run from me, I can still get in a vehicle pursuit. We give our people the ability to do their job," Bullard said. "And even though there's hurdles that this reform has put in the way… many honorable things about the profession are still there. Some of the things we just got to work harder at doing."
"Try as they might, they can not take away the honor in what we do for a living," he said.