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New cash bail law in Illinois sparks local concern
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Jeff Bullard

MOUNT VERNON — Local law enforcement officials say they have very real concerns about Illinois’ new SAFE-T Act legislation and how the elimination of cash bail and other provisions of the law could impact public safety.

“I have stated it publicly in the past, the SAFE-T Act was a combination of 30 years of many bad ideas for criminal justice reform that law enforcement lobbying was able to keep out of statute, until now,” said Jefferson County Sheriff Jeff Bullard. “At the 11th hour, in the early morning hours, with little communication with law enforcement leaders across the state, this law was crammed down our throats.”

The Illinois Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today Act, also called the SAFE-T Act, passed the Illinois Legislature on Jan. 13, 2021, and was subsequently signed into law by Gov. JB Pritzker, online sources state.

The legislation is wide-ranging and includes a number of provisions such as abolishing cash bail starting in January 2023, reforming police training and standards, expanding detainee rights, and requiring body cameras for all police departments by 2025, among other things, according to Capital News Illinois.

Supporters of the Act say the reform is necessary to make the justice system more fair for minorities and low-income defendants. Opponents, however, worry some of the provisions could lead to rising crime rates and threaten public safety.

Perhaps the most disputed aspect of the new law is the elimination of cash bail in Illinois starting on Jan. 1, 2023. Under the new system, most defendants can only be detained in pretrial confinement when prosecutors are able to prove to a judge that the defendant is a flight risk or poses a threat to someone or the community at large, online sources state.

“The biggest concern that I have at this point in time is, much like what we’ve seen with other components within the SAFE-T Act is, there’s more questions than answers of how things are going to work, how they are going to be coordinated,” said Mount Vernon Police Chief Trent Page. “For instance, how are they going to be able to look at all the factors regarding whether or not to release somebody from custody in a timely manner, prior to them going to court, as with the many things they have to consider.”

Under the new law, most defendants are presumed eligible for pretrial release unless prosecutors are able to present evidence to a judge that pretrial release should be denied for that individual. This evidence could include proof the suspect committed the crime and/or poses a threat to someone’s public safety. Prosecutors would have to submit a request for detention for that defendant, and the state also has to give each defendant a hearing within 48 hours to determine if they should be released, according to Capitol News Illinois.

“I think the theory is that prior to them going to court, there has to be a review of the person’s behavior prior to the offense,” Page said. “So somebody, the pretrial officers, have to have that information prior to going to court and then the judge has to make a determination. What happens if it’s over the holidays or it’s on a weekend? We simply don’t know at this point in time.”

Bullard also said there are problems with this aspect of the law.

“The judge will still have some discretion,” Bullard said. “It will be the responsibility of the state’s attorney to prove to the judge in the pretrial detention hearing the risk the defendant poses to society. If the judge agrees, the defendant can be remanded for trial. The problem is, there is a detention screening tool that will limit the judge’s discretion. An example would be no drug offense, of any kind, is listed in the detention screening tool by name.”

Bullard highlighted some of the crimes common in our area that would be affected by the new law.

“Drug crimes, intimidation of victims/witnesses, battering a peace officer or other first responder, and any non-violent felony like identity theft, motor vehicle theft, etc. would be crimes where the defendant, unless there are other charges, won’t be detained according to the new statute and detention screening tool,” Bullard said.

Bullard said he has a “heightened concern” regarding certain sections of the SAFE-T Act and what it means for public safety.

“Making Class B and C misdemeanors ‘citation only’ offenses, meaning a custodial arrest cannot be made, will lessen law enforcement’s ability to keep the peace and protect people’s property,” Bullard said. “Further, the elimination of cash bail has proven to be an overall failure in other states that have tried it, with crime rates, especially violent crime, rising as a result. Illinois crime rates have been on the increase and the elimination of cash bail will only make it worse in my professional opinion.”

Bullard said the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office has been training employees on the new law and updating policy and procedure to reflect the changes.

However, Page said preparing for the new law has been problematic because a number of changes have been made to the legislation since its passage.

“We have been trying to keep up to date on the SAFE-T Act, especially the cash bail and the other components,” Page said. “Unfortunately, this whole bill has been something that’s had numerous adjustments made to it over the last several months. And so it’s really something that we don’t want to be too stringent on until we totally know what it’s going to be when it comes in effect on Jan. 1.”

Hopefully, there will be a clearer picture on the new law by December, Page said.

“In December, we should have clarification hopefully for the concerns that we have and know exactly how it’s going to work and at that time we will start disseminating information to the officers,” Page said. “Again, this whole SAFE-T Act has had so many issues that have just been clear or unable to be accomplished that the whole process has been flawed from the beginning.”

Bullard said major changes need to be made to the legislation before it’s fully implemented.

“While requiring body cameras is a good thing, having criminal penalties for an officer failing to turn it on is not,” Bullard said. “The SAFE-T Act was handled in an irresponsible manner, chock full of unintended consequences, and all stakeholders need to sit back down at the table and work something out that will actually achieve expected goals, while seriously lessening those unintended consequences.”

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SSM Health holds ceremony for new Kaushal Pediatric Unit
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MOUNT VERNON — SSM Health Good Samaritan Hospital celebrated the new Kaushal Pediatric Clinical Decision Unit (CDU) with a ceremony on Tuesday.

According to information provided by SSM Health, the CDU is a specialized designated area of the hospital’s emergency department and will serve as an observation unit for children who require further evaluation, testing or treatment. The designated area is for pediatric patients that do not require more than a 24-hour inpatient stay but will most likely be there for 12 or more hours. The CDU has four designated rooms with two beds in each room.

During Tuesday’s ribbon cutting ceremony, which was facilitated by the Greater Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, President of SSM Health Good Samaritan Hospital Jeremy Bradford spoke on the significance of the CDU.

“When we talk about in healthcare making a difference and serving the community, this is the epitome of that. When we talk about the future of our community and the difference that we could make, the Pediatric CD Unit is really going to be transformational for our community and our region,” Bradford said, later adding, “The most important thing I want to share with you is the love and heart that has gone into this unit. It is more than an eight-bed Pediatric CD Unit, it is a mission. It is an opportunity for us here in Southern Illinois to be the regional hub for pediatric care, whereas patients otherwise have to travel to St. Louis.”

Bradford said this CDU is a true example of collaboration and partnership between many in the community working together. He acknowledged Dr. Johnny and Dr. Neeta Kaushal, the Good Samaritan Hospital Foundation Board of Directors and Foundation President Kay Zibby-Damron, the construction team, the SSM Health leadership team and many others that were involved.

“I cannot tell the effort that has gone into this unit, the planning and if it wasn’t for all the different stakeholders who rolled up their sleeves and made it happen, we wouldn’t be standing here today,” Bradford said. “I am so blessed to be able to be a part of this ministry and a part of this community.”

This new service allows SSM Health pediatricians and emergency department staff to consult with specialists from SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital and lessen the likelihood of families having to travel to St. Louis or other regions for care.

Going into further detail on the rooms, Zibby-Damron said they went with a theme to reflect Southern Illinois.

“And that is trains and that is agriculture which is the center of our economy here. I suspect a lot of those conversations when they were first meeting was in remembrance of our good friend and very strong supporter of the foundation Mr. Steven Beal, who was also a foundation director,” Zibby-Damron said. “We are happy to be able to honor his memory and also the things that are just so important to Southern Illinois that we see in agriculture and the rail business here.”

Dr. Neeta Kaushal, who is also the Jefferson County Health Department Medical Director, recalled when her husband Dr. Johnny Kaushal brought her to Southern Illinois. She said being from Chicago she was unsure of the transition as they looked at starting business in the St. Louis area, when Mount Vernon was brought up.

“All of a sudden he finds a little postcard in the mail that says that Good Samaritan Hospital is looking for a pediatrician. He goes ‘That is a little bit away from St. Louis, I think we can make it work’ and I said ‘Where is it?’” Kaushal said, later adding, “I said ‘OK six months is what I am going to give you.’ So in 2006 we came down.”

Neeta Kaushal said that they had a good impression of the community. She noted her biggest challenge was first finding Good Samaritan Hospital, which on first impression brought memories of the nursing homes in Chicago.

“Little did I know since we have been here, we get a new hospital, we get a new high school, we get a new Broadway, we get Dunkin’ Donuts, Kohl’s, it has just expanded,” Kaushal said. “The only thing that was left is we did not have a pediatric unit like we did in the old nursing home hospital. And so today thanks to all of you guys. ... We have finally come from all those years we have our place here. So thank you to all of you.”

Neeta Kaushal noted that her husband would also like to have spoken, but is unable to as he is a tongue cancer survivor. The Kaushals were also present with their daughters Gauri and Priyanka. Kaushal said she hopes that SSM Health Cardinal Glennon finds them to be a part of their sister hospitals and patients that are transferred feel that it is a continuous service and not going to a different hospital.

“I really feel that this should be an entity of SSM Health and a continuation of the two places,” Kaushal said.

Zibby-Damron thanked the Kaushal family for their vision, belief in the hospital’s mission and their generous investment.

“Not only do you provide your service, but you have also greatly provided significant philanthropic support to the hospital,” Zibby-Damron said. “That to me just shows how much you care about not only the hospital, but your community, so thank you very much.”

Jane Ritter, Southern Illinois Interim Regional Chief Nursing Officer for SSM Health, said it is inspiring to see a community in the Midwest providing this excellent service.

“It has really been an honor to be here, I have worked in a lot of different systems throughout the country and I have to say the close sense to our mission, the passion and compassion that I have seen here is just amazing,” Ritter said.

The official opening of the CDU is scheduled for Sept. 26.

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MVTHS approves parking lot related projects
  • Updated

MOUNT VERNON — The Mount Vernon Township High School Board of Education approved a quote and a bid related to two MVTHS parking lot projects during Monday’s meeting.

The board first approved a bid from Bevis Construction of $135,800 for the old campus H parking lot improvement project. Superintendent Melanie Andrews said that last year she wrote a school maintenance project grant to help fund part of the parking lot improvements in H Building.

“If you recall we did bid that out, the entire parking lot, in July the board rejected the bid because it came in about three times over what we thought it was going to be,” Andrews said.

Andrews said that the district met with Baysinger Architects again and revised the project, switching to concrete over asphalt and fixing a couple of rows instead of repairing the entire lot.

“We are basically going to do the row by the road and one more aisle of spaces,” Andrews said. “I think it gets us 52 spaces in the concrete.”

Andrews said about $40,000 of the project is coming from the school maintenance grant, which was designed as a matching grant. She suggested where the remaining portion of the project funds could come from.

“What I would like to do is use the sale of the old campus property to help fund the rest of that project,” Andrews said.

Andrews said $135,000 of the project is the base bid and the $800 is the removal of bad soil from the property.

“We had two bids on this. Bevis was the low bidder by about $100,000,” Andrews said. “They are going to start Aug. 3 and they will be done in three weeks.”

The board unanimously approved the bid.

The board also approved a speed bump quote from Bevis Construction in the amount of $22,800 for the current campus. Andrews said that they were approached by the MVTHS Campus Safety Director about putting in permanent speed bumps instead of the temporary ones that are currently being used.

“This came about from a couple of accidents that we have had recently in the parking lot,” Andrews said.

Andrews said that the bid amount also includes signage.

“That would get us 30 permanent speed bumps on campus,” Andrews said.

Principal Rowdy Fatheree said accidents happened two weeks in a row from spectators leaving events.

“They headed east to west leaving our parking, then our northbound traffic they were t-boned, because there is basically no signage, there are no speed bumps,” Fatheree said. “The current speed bumps that we have, the bolts that hold them down with the pressure of bouncing cars over those they work their way up and become a hazard for puncturing a tire. It is a constant battle, because the snowplow will rip them up. So they take them up in my opinion about October and then I fight to get them back by April. And that is a lot of time without speed bumps and without snow in my opinion. So it is a constant battle between administration and maintenance.”

Fatheree said if the speed bumps are permanent maintenance can still plow without worrying about lifting them up. Andrews said this will also help with students doing donuts in the parking lots.

“We are working with Roundtable (Design) on this and they are going to provide their services free of cost on this project,” Andrews said.

A timeframe for the speed bump installations was not available as of press time.

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MV seeks grant for Veterans Park upgrades
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MOUNT VERNON — The City of Mount Vernon plans to apply for a $600,000 state grant to help fund a number of planned improvements at Veterans Memorial Park.

Among the upgrades being sought are new playground equipment, a rubberized play surface for the playground to make it more accessible, pickleball courts, walking path improvements, and new picnic shelters. There would also be new sidewalks and covered picnic tables installed around the playground.

“That’s all part of the plan that we’ve been working towards to make our park something the community can be proud of,” said Mayor John Lewis. “And it will improve the accessibility of much of the equipment, plus we’ve gotten a lot of calls for pickleball courts and more shelters. So we’re listening to the community and what their wants and needs are.”

The Mount Vernon City Council Monday unanimously approved a resolution authorizing the city to apply for the grant. Specifically, the grant is an Open Space Land Acquisition Development Grant through the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

The $600,000 grant does not require a match but Mount Vernon plans to use $200,000 as a match to improve the city’s chances of getting the grant, Lewis said. Providing a match should give the city a “leg up” in the state’s grant decision process, he said. The $200,000 was budgeted by the city for planned walking path improvements at Veterans Park next year after the new police station is built, said City Manager Mary Ellen Bechtel.

“And we’re going to use that as a match for this,” Bechtel said of the $200,000.

Assistant City Manager Nathan McKenna said the application deadline for this grant is Sept. 30 but it’s unclear when the state will announce the award. If Mount Vernon receives the grant, it will likely do the work next spring.

McKenna said the project will continue the efforts to have more inclusive playground equipment at Veterans Park that began when the Elks installed an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) accessible swing at the park. Much of the playground equipment currently at the park is several decades old and needs to be improved, McKenna said.

“So we realized we needed to pursue providing more inclusive playground equipment at Veterans Park,” McKenna said, later adding, “We want to continue making our parks a nice place to spend the day and enjoy great weather.”