Few things have sparked more controversy than Illinois’ SAFE-T Act. The legislation, which made Illinois the first state in the nation to eliminate cash bail completely, caused a frenzy among many state residents as well as criminal justice and legal experts. After significant pushback from law enforcement, prosecutors and victim representatives, public outcry led to a legal fight culminating at the highest levels of Illinois’ judicial system. Today, the state Supreme Court upheld the legislation.

But all this controversy could have been avoided had legislators listened to and engaged experts in the field—such as prosecutors, law enforcement and victims—from the start.

Criminal justice researchers have long seen cash bail as creating a class system within our criminal justice system by releasing those who can pay out, regardless of their flight or safety risk, and keeping the less fortunate jailed. The SAFE-T Act tried to right these inequities by removing the use of cash with bail.

Instead, the bill—crafted without the expertise and input of critical stakeholders—resulted in infighting and legal challenges. Law enforcement officials and prosecutors have continuously expressed concerns, specifically about how eliminating cash bail and limiting judicial discretion can have detrimental consequences for individual victims, officers and the community at large. There was also confusion over which crimes were no longer bail-eligible and debate that some alleged violent offenders would be let out pre-trial, leading advocates to fear that victims and witnesses would be less willing to speak for fear of reprisal. Opponents of the legislation also pointed out that it dismantled rights previously protected under the Victims’ Rights Act.

Just as elected officials relied on public health experts to respond to COVID-19 and environmental scientists to address climate change, legislators must listen to criminal justice experts when it comes to public safety bills. Individuals with experience in the field or those directly involved with the system can provide great insight as to how things work and what unintended consequences may be exposed.

Indeed, some important amendments were made to the SAFE-T Act last year after key stakeholders were finally engaged. These changes go to the heart of the act: Those who are deemed dangerous will be detained, and others will not be punished simply for being poor. But this work should have been done at the beginning, not as an afterthought.

Research shows that bail system changes can enhance fairness without significantly jeopardizing public safety. But how and when they are made is key, as is a clear explanation of what the changes entail. Experts and relevant voices must be consulted on these important issues to ensure that smart criminal justice reforms expressly support victims and outline how public safety concerns will be addressed. Stronger criminal justice legislation comes about when policymakers elicit key perspectives from prosecutors, law enforcement and victims and give them a seat at the table. Only time will tell if elected officials did enough to address stakeholders’ concerns regarding safety and accountability. If they did, Illinois could pave the way for positive bail reform legislation across the nation. If not, it could set back pretrial justice exponentially.