Illinois is making history—and headlines—for being the first state in the US to pass a new controversial law whose consequences have been compared with the dystopian action horror film The Purge, a movie in which all violent crime is legal for 24 hours.
Come 1 January 2023, the ‘SAFE-T Act’ will be active in the state. Its catchy name stands for ‘Safety, Accountability, Fairness, and Equity-Today’ and will allow its residents to commit crimes freely. Or so people think.
In other words, it’s aimed at reforming Illinois’ cash bail system by basically getting rid of cash bail entirely. It also limits who can be arrested and held in jail based on the crime they are alleged to have committed.
The law would end cash bail for 12 non-detainable offences. This includes second-degree murder, aggravated battery, arson, drug-induced homicide, kidnapping, burglary, robbery, intimidation, aggravated driving under the influence (DUI), aggravated fleeing and eluding, drug offences and threatening a public official. Yep, we know what you’re thinking—these are some pretty serious crimes.
As you can imagine, many members of the law enforcement community have heavily criticised the move and are working as hard as they can to have the current law amended. Some state officials even claim it’s going to worsen crime in Illinois.
“I’m very concerned about an increase in violent crime. But again I do want to stress there is still time to fix it. And the state’s attorneys are working very hard as we have been for the last year and a half to fix this law. It is very fixable, where we can still eliminate cash bail but make sure the right people are in custody and everybody else who’s not a danger gets out,” said DuPage County state’s attorney Robert Berlin.
The Safe-T Act would allow defendants of the crimes listed above to become eligible for pretrial release. However, this will only be made possible if prosecutors don’t present “clear and convincing evidence” showing the suspect poses a threat to a specific person.
This will, in turn, have an impact on how quickly detainees get ‘dealt with’—since the state will have to hold a trial within 48 hours to determine if the suspect should be released. Investigators believe that’s not enough time to compile sufficient evidence from surveillance and body cameras, crime labs and forensic analysis.
While this law is controversial to say the least, it’s important we look at the reason it first came into existence. For years now, there have been calls to abolish cash bail in the US. According to the Center for American Progress, three out of five people sitting in American jails have not been convicted of a crime. This amounts to nearly 500,000 people languishing in cells before trial.
This is in part due to the cash bail system being operated by most jurisdictions across the country that the Center described as “criminalising poverty.” People who are unable to afford bail remain in detention while awaiting trial for weeks or months, and of course, the effects of this unfair system are felt mostly by impoverished communities of colour.
Furthermore, “studies show that pretrial detention can actually increase a person’s likelihood of rearrest upon release, perpetuating an endless cycle of arrest and incarceration,” the institute noted.
Keeping that in mind, it does make you wonder: is the SAFE-T Act about to turn Illinois into a playground for violence and crime or will it be the first step in ending mass incarceration in the US?
The first time Uzoma Orchingwa wrote a letter to a prison, he was in college, trying to reach an incarcerated childhood friend. The letter never arrived.
Communicating with inmates in America is notoriously difficult—physical addresses are different from mailing addresses, phone calls are exorbitantly expensive, and visiting a state facility requires a 100-mile trek, on average.
Orchingwa has successfully sent many letters since, and while writing his masters dissertation on criminology at Cambridge, he waded deep into research on prison reform—and concluded reforms alone won’t quickly solve the system’s many problems. Now he’s at Yale Law School building Ameelio, a digital platform that has already printed and shipped 22,000 letters to inmates and is preparing to launch a free video call system for jails and prisons. The Kickstarter campaign will help make it happen.
Ameelio is taking on a $1.2 billion communication service industry—mostly a duopoly between Securus and Global Tel Link. In all but 11 states, it’s legal for these companies to charge inmates punishingly high rates for phone calls, pocket margins of 50 per cent or more, and pay jails and prisons millions of dollars in kickbacks. Former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn called the industry “the clearest, most glaring type of market failure I’ve ever seen as a regulator.”
America’s most vulnerable populations are paying for it. Families report spending up to $500 a month to stay connected, and one in three of these families is forced into debt paying for phone calls and visits alone. Family members who are not able to talk or visit regularly are much more likely to report experiencing negative health impacts related to a family member’s incarceration, and isolated inmates face increased challenges readjusting upon their release.
There has been new scrutiny on the issue in recent years, but with uneven progress. A phone call in a city-run Illinois jail, for example, costs 52 times more than a call from a state-run Illinois prison. “We don’t have one justice system,” Orchingwa explains, “we have 51 separate systems. Then underneath that we have counties that have their own stakeholders and incentives.” He hopes that his free communication platform will stop the cycle of overwhelmed administrators letting exploitative businesses into their facilities. “Basically our theory of change is establishing ourselves as a free alternative to the for-profit companies.”
To take on big businesses—and big technical requirements—Orchingwa started with a more straightforward product: a web and mobile app that lets users type letters and upload photos. Ameelio then prints, adds postage, and mails them at no cost. (The bootstrapped non-profit has gathered grants from Robin Hood, Mozilla Builders, and Fast Forward to cover expenses.)
“It made sense to start with letters because there’s very little barrier to entry and the vast majority of people who are incarcerated communicate through letters,” Orchingwa says. “We could bring it online, digitise it, and boost contact.”
As the team rolled out the initial app, interest spread quickly. Close to 50 per cent of Ameelio’s users come directly from referrals of people who are incarcerated—they’ll see letters others are receiving and call home to tell their community about the platform.
Criminal justice organisations soon learned about Ameelio as well. “We were building out this nationwide database because we want to make it easier for our users to find their loved ones and communicate with them. It hadn’t occurred to us that reentry organisations didn’t actually have much visibility either,” Orchingwa says. Even preeminent institutions like PEN America and Harvard’s legal clinics had very limited data and cumbersome mailing processes. The Ameelio team added new product features aimed at these types of users doing outreach and re-entry work.
Now, the fast-growing team is nearing their ultimate goal: a service for free video calls. Inmates will sign on with tablets that are either fixed in a supervised phone bank or available for checkout during visiting hours. The software will allow for scheduling, identity verification, and screenshots or video playback for security compliance. Orchingwa is finalising a pilot program with a mid-sized county jail and looking forward to future iterations that could add education programs and telehealth to the tablets and generate data supporting prison reform.
“We’re going to be able to provide metrics and be able to work with legislators to say, ‘Look, in Connecticut, we find that incarcerated people who have weekly access to their loved one fare much better.’ We should think a little more creatively about recidivism and sentencing,” Orchingwa says. “And we hope to be a technology service that can also do advocacy and accelerate legislative change.”
Ameelio is live on Kickstarter through 31 July, 2020.