What’s Next for Illinois Criminal Law Reform?
Injustice Watch hosted a virtual town hall with officials on Wednesday night to discuss the massive criminal justice reform bill passed by the Illinois Legislature earlier this year – and paved the way for criminal justice reform in Illinois.
The event was attended by Illinois State Senator Robert Peters, D-Chicago, and Cook County’s Sharone Mitchell Jr., who were instrumental in promoting the Illinois Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today Act, Governor JB Pritzker signed into law in February. The SAFE-T Act ends the use of cash deposits, places stricter limits on the use of police violence, and allows judges, among many other provisions, to override minimum penalties in some cases.
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The town hall was moderated by the editor-in-chief of Injustice Watch, Adeshina Emmanuel, and the executive director Juliet Sorensen, who asked questions from community organizations and participants of the event in advance.
Peters, Senate Chairman of the Black Caucus, was a community organizer and political director for Reclaim Chicago and The People’s Lobby prior to joining the State Senate in 2019. He led several measures in the criminal justice reform package, including the Pretrial Fairness Act, which is the part of the law that ends cash bail and establishes other restrictions on pre-trial detention.
Mitchell worked on criminal justice reform long before Cook County CEO Toni Preckwinkle named him Cook County’s public defender in March. Previously, he was the director of the Illinois Justice Project, a nonprofit advocating for fairer justice. In this role, he was part of a coalition of organizations that campaigned for the Pretrial Fairness Act and other reform laws.
During the town hall meeting, Peters and Mitchell stressed that the political process does not end with the passing of a bill. We have a long way to go in terms of implementation, accountability and additional legislation to further advance criminal law reform.
Here are some of the highlights of the event.
“Practice eats politics for dinner”
At the heart of the SAFE-T Act is the abolition of cash bail and other restrictions on pre-trial detention, based on years of research showing that pre-trial detention leads to longer sentences and worse outcomes, especially for blacks and Latinx defendants. This part of the bill won’t come into effect until January 2023, but Sorensen asked speakers what obstacles could prevent the bill from being fully implemented.
Establishing good public order is just the starting point, Mitchell said. The harder part is changing the ingrained cultural and systemic practices that made politics necessary in the first place.
“The practice eats politics for dinner,” said Mitchell. “But to get better practice, we have to change the policy.”
Mitchell said the bill contains data collection requirements that will help the public and media hold system stakeholders accountable for implementing the SAFE-T bill.
The Illinois Courts Administration Bureau is tasked with establishing a pre-trial data oversight body that includes representatives from criminal justice agencies from across the state and prepares public data reports on pre-trial detention and outcomes.
Still, it will be up to the bill’s proponents, the media and the public to ensure that the law is implemented as intended, Mitchell said.
“Let’s never forget that it was the organization that made this invoice,” he said. “It was the organization that took over the legislature.” He said the same kind of organizing was necessary to hold lawmakers and political leaders accountable for implementing the reform package.
Opposition is still a threat
Within weeks of the signing of the SAFE-T bill, law enforcement groups like the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police – who said the bill would “endanger communities” and “encourage criminals” – began working with lawmakers to try and get themselves withdraw some parts of the law.
With a long lead time to implementation, opponents of the bill have ample time to try to remove parts of the law that they do not like. Peters said Wednesday he wouldn’t be surprised if opponents also used the SAFE-T bill to target politicians who supported the bill in next year’s election.
Peters said the groups opposed to the reform “are committed to” tough crime-dealing “policies that have proven ineffective and do not really improve public safety. On Wednesday, he referred several times to the “Willie Horton-esque” rhetoric used by opponents of bail reforms to sink similar laws in other states.
For example, New York passed a law in 2019 that abolished cash bail for a range of crimes, but within days of it going into effect, newspapers, police unions and politicians began attacking the law for allegedly fueling an increase in crime. Only a few months later, the legislature rolled back parts of the bill.
Peters and Mitchell both said they were recently confronted with people who claimed that the cash bail termination had spurred a surge in crime in Chicago and across the state – despite the cash bail abolition policy no longer going into effect than on Year.
“It’s the traditional, reactionary way we report justice issues and legal issues that we also have to worry about,” said Mitchell. “We just need to be strong and realize that the vast majority of the people who are in the system are harmed by our over-reliance on pre-trial detention and how much money we are paying out of the communities that need it most of money bonds. “
Chances for a future criminal law reform
The town hall audience and community groups who had asked questions in advance were interested in what is not in the SAFE-T Act as much as what it is.
The Prison + Neighborhood Arts / Education Project, a nonprofit group that offers courses to incarcerated people, asked why the legislative reforms weren’t applied retrospectively. For example, a provision in the SAFE-T Act changes the Criminal Murder Act so that if someone else kills someone in the course of a crime, such as an armed robbery or break-in, a person can no longer be charged with murder. But this provision only applies to future cases and does not help people who are already incarcerated.
“Isn’t it the responsibility of today’s politicians to correct the mistakes of past politicians?” PNAP asked in a pre-submitted question. “And doesn’t that mean that all reform laws should apply retrospectively in order to relieve people who have been sentenced to long prison terms on the basis of convictions that have since been discredited?”
Mitchell said many people fought for changes to the penal code to be retroactive, but there are many groups, including the Association of Prosecutors from across Illinois, who have “mouthed and nailed” the opposition.
“If we say goodbye now, it should apply to everyone who is still there and serving sentences,” said Mitchell.
Peters said he also wanted to see retroactive changes to the penal code, “but we just don’t have the power yet.”
Still, he sees opportunities in the future for additional criminal justice reform laws to help people currently incarcerated. He said state lawmakers should pass laws that provide ways to get out of prison earlier for people serving long sentences from a harsh crime era. He is currently working on a bill to reinstate the probation of people serving long sentences. He also wants to urge the governorship to use its executive powers more often to commute sentences and issue pardons.
“I would even say that there is a greater chance of progressive legislation in Springfield than in City Hall,” said Peters.
Peters said the reality of law-making comes before the political power that progressive lawmakers have and what they can actually enforce. He said the key is to keep organizing and building power to make breakthroughs that will lead to major changes in the system.
That will not be easy. Part of the problem, Mitchell said, is the attitude that many Americans are comfortable putting a person in jail for long periods of time.
“The data is pretty clear that long sentences don’t improve community safety,” said Mitchell. “But the problem is politics, and can we get lawmakers to the point where they can say, ‘Enough is enough’ and ‘I won’t be able to stand someone thirty or more jailed? 40 years. ‘”