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Advocates: lllinois' Criminal Justice Reform Law Replaces 'Irrational System'

Slide showing a tree and roots and language explaining criminal justice reform gets at the root of the problem.
Chicago AppleSeed Center for Fair Courts & Illinois Network for Pretrail Justice
Advocates for Illinois' sweeping criminal justice reform law say it is a first step toward helping make communities safer.

Two criminal justice advocates who helped craft Illinois’ new criminal justice reform law signed by Gov. JB Pritzker in February say the legislation might have been passed quickly, but it was years in the making.

The 698-page law revamps the entire pre-trial system, said Sarah Staudt, senior policy analyst and staff attorney for the Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts. Staudt, along with former Illinois state trooper-turned-advocate Marie Franklin of the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice, presented an explanation of the new law during an educational program hosted Tuesday night on Zoom by the League of Women Voters of McLean County

Staudt explained the law is a combination of three packages of bills that had been pending in Springfield since 2019 and last year, and the legislation included input from more than 30 organizations. The sweeping overhaul, passed by the Illinois General Assembly during the final hours of its January lame-duck session, includes changes to almost every area of the justice system — from police accountability to pretrial detention and sentencing.

“Law enforcement does not like this bill,” said Staudt. 

She pointed out it was not the result of compromise in which police unions, law enforcement and advocates came together to arrive at a mutual agreement. Instead, it was passed with the power of the trifecta of Democrats who hold a majority in both the Illinois House and Senate, along with a Democratic governor. 

According to Staudt, lawmakers felt the state was in a crisis that required immediate action.

“It was something sponsors of the bill felt was necessary to do given the state of policing in Illinois right now.”

Still, some key provisions, such as requiring police officers wear body cameras, will be phased in and won't apply to the smallest police departments until 2025.

Pretrial release a default position 

Among the many provisions, the law significantly changes the approach to jailing people awaiting trial -- a population that represents 90% of the roughly 250,000 people in city and county jails in Illinois, according to Staudt.

By 2023, cash bail will be eliminated. Franklin said it restores the presumption of innocence and moves away from a system that is irrational in its approach by criminalizing poverty.

Under the reforms, judges must impose the least restrictive conditions necessary to ensure a defendant’s appearance in court. In serious cases such as sexual assault or domestic violence, defendants can be held until a bond hearing where judges consider streamlined factors, such as whether the accused poses a risk to others. Staudt said victims rights groups have gotten behind the first-of-its-kind legislation.

Regarding Illinois’ cash bail system, Franklin said, “People’s lives are shattered (by it).”

For example, Franklin explained while as a state trooper, she arrested a man because he had an outstanding warrant for an unreturned video from Blockbuster. While driving with his son, he was stopped and taken into custody. He needed $500 to get out of jail and didn’t have it. What happened next? The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services was called and the man lost custody of his child, said to Franklin.

“I knew there was something wrong with this system,” she declared. “What happened to innocent until proven guilty?” Franklin said she's heard the argument, ‘Well they get that money back’ when someone scrapes up the money to post bail. To that she responds, “That landlord is not going to wait and is not going to care that you had to spend the rent money to get your husband out of jail. They want their rent money.”

Shattering the Blue Wall of Silence

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul successfully pushed to include a new state-level process to decertify police officers who commit abuses. The new law empowers Illinois’ training and standards board to investigate misconduct allegations and pursue decertification, regardless of whether an officer was charged, convicted, or disciplined by his or her department.

Photo of George Floyd who was killed by police using an unlawful restraint along with key messages about use of force changes in a reform law.
Credit Photo of slide presented by the Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts & Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice
The presentation slide emphasizes some of the reforms are in direct response to what was witnessed in the George Floyd murder at the hands of police.

Plus, Staudt said it shatters what she called "the blue wall of silence" because the legislation allows anonymous complaints from citizens and other police officers, increases whistleblower protections, and requires departments keep permanently police misconduct records -- rather than destroying them under timeframes randomly set by individual agencies.

Another significant provision prohibits deadly force from being used to stop and arrest people who don’t pose a danger. The law requires that police officers respect and value the sanctity of human life and prioritize human life over property and the need to take someone into custody.

“We shouldn’t be killing people over retail theft and cigarettes,” Staudt stated firmly. 

There's language that addresses "a duty to intervene" that she admits comes directly as a result of the George Floyd case in which other officers stood by and watched as Derek Chauvin held his knee on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds. 

Additional training requirements are spelled out, not only for recruits at the police training academy, but ongoing training for officers throughout their careers. Pritzer has said there will be additional money to support training in the state’s next fiscal year budget.

If someone is arrested, new mandates require allowing access to a phone call before an interrogation and within three hours of being taken to a police station, along with the ability to retrieve a cell phone with stored numbers. Lastly, a key element for lasting impact according to Staudt, is full compliance with the federal government’s use-of-force data tracking system. She claimed Rockford is the only city within Illinois that has fully complied.

Countering the pushback

Law enforcement groups were able to eliminate from initial language a provision that gives them what’s known as qualified immunity that makes it harder to sue individual officers and police departments for misconduct and illegal behavior on the job. That hotly-debated issue will likely come back before the General Assembly. For now, advocates of the sweeping reform law are trying to focus on countering what they believe is law enforcement's campaign of misinformation about provisions in the law, and efforts that will likely come in the next legislative session to reverse reforms.

McLean County League of Women Voters moderator Laurie Bergner agreed with some participants listening to the presentation that town halls and other educational sessions are needed to provide accurate information about what’s in the law and to help rally community and statewide support for it.  

“We don’t want to lose what we just gained,” said Bergner. 

Acknowledging the phrase "defund the police" doesn’t help frame the reforms properly, Franklin said Illinois residents need to understand it’s about putting money where it can do the most good and where evidence shows it makes a difference by keeping communities safer.

“Communities are safe when people in the communities are able to thrive; when they have the necessary resources that they need, when they are treated in an equitable way -- that’s what makes us safe,” she said.

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