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Downstate Sen. Scott Bennett, who played major role in changes to SAFE-T Act, dies at 45

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Democratic state Sen. Scott Bennett of Champaign, who played an integral role only days ago in passing legislation that clarified the state’s landmark criminal reform justice act, died Friday from complications of a large brain tumor, according to a statement released by his office. He was 45.

A former assistant state’s attorney, Bennett has been a state senator since he was appointed in 2015 to fill the seat vacated by Michael Frerichs after Frerichs was elected Illinois state treasurer.

In a statement, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker said “the entire state is a better place” thanks to Bennett’s public service.

“The state of Illinois mourns the loss of a dedicated public servant and devoted father. Sen. Scott Bennett was a good man who always operated with the best interest of his constituents in mind,” the governor said. “Throughout his time in Springfield, he fiercely advocated for the institutions that shaped his life, from his upbringing on a Gibson City farm, all the way to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.”

Paramedics were called to Bennett’s home shortly before 3 a.m. Thursday and he was rushed to Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, the News-Gazette of Champaign reported. Bennett’s office said he died Friday at the hospital surrounded by his wife, family and loved ones.

“We remain in complete shock because it was all so sudden and unexpected,” Bennett’s wife, Stacy, said in a statement shared by Bennett’s Senate office. “Scott lived a life full of service and constantly looked for ways to lend his time and energy to helping our community and state. He worked tirelessly to find solutions to society’s most pressing issues by finding common ground and compromise. To say he will be greatly missed is an understatement.”

Bennett’s death came three days after Pritzker signed into law language aimed at clarifying provisions in the Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today Act, including pretrial fairness provisions that end Illinois’ cashless bail system on Jan. 1.

Bennett was a pivotal factor in advancing changes to the law that the General Assembly approved last week. The law had become a focal point throughout the general election campaign and drew opposition from Republicans and the vast majority of county state’s attorneys in Illinois. In late September, Bennett filed legislative changes to the law to clarify the discretion judges will have to deny pretrial release as well as other provisions of the landmark law.

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After Pritzker signed the new legislation, Bennett issued a statement saying that “after collaboration between a diverse group, we were able to create a measure that ensures public safety and maintains the intent of the Pretrial Fairness Act.”

State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, a Peoria Democrat, said Bennett’s death was an “unexpected tragedy.”

“Sen. Bennett’s collegiality and dedication was instrumental to the work of refining and enhancing the SAFE-T Act, and his dedication to his community was paramount,” she said.

Bennett was raised in Gibson City and worked the family’s fifth-generation farm. A graduate of Illinois State University, he moved to Champaign, where he attended law school at the University of Illinois. He was an assistant state’s attorney in Champaign County before joining the Senate. Bennett won a contested election for the seat in 2020 with 63% of the vote and was unopposed for reelection on Nov. 8.

Frerichs said Bennett was one of his “closest friends.”

“Scott had a big laugh and an even bigger heart. He made friends easily, understood the value of hard work and was quick with words of encouragement at just the right time,” the state treasurer said.

Democrats will hold a 40-19 supermajority when the new General Assembly is inaugurated in January. Democratic leaders from his district will pick a successor to fill out Bennett’s term.

In addition to his wife, Bennett is survived by two children.

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