Illinois Issues: What Lawmakers Got Done

Jul 23, 2015

The state may still be far from a budget deal, but the General Assembly was able to pass several criminal justice reforms in the spring legislative session.

News Analysis — As Illinois government slogged into uncharted territory — weeks into a new fiscal year with no budget agreement in sight — one might be tempted to wonder whether the warring camps ever will find common ground to agree on much of anything.

Looking beyond the harsh partisan rhetoric and trashed civility that so far has been the norm for legislative overtime, though, across-the-aisle cooperation and give-and-take compromise produced significant results earlier on, before the budget stalemate. 

The most notable achievements came in the area of criminal justice, including a far-reaching measure proponents said would become a national model for law enforcement reform. A product of intense, months-long negotiations among police groups, community leaders and civil rights organizations like the NAACP: Senate Bill 1304 cleared both chambers by wide margins — 107 to 3 in the House, 45 to 5, with 6 present votes, in the Senate. As of press time, the legislation awaited action by Gov. Rauner. 

Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois Springfield. He has been writing his Ends and Means column for Illinois Issues since 1984.
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

Its key provision — authorizing the use of body cameras by police — was endorsed in a joint statement by the NAACP and the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police in late May, as the bill moved toward final approval. “State legislation regarding the use of body-worn cameras by police officers in Illinois has been a priority for both of our organizations this spring,” the groups said. “We are pleased to see this initiative advance ... and we believe it is significant that our two organizations are making this statement of support together. We are committed to seeking and demanding transparency and accountability in law enforcement. Body cameras will help show the public that most police officers are engaged in constitutional policing, and they will help identify officers who abuse their authority or commit misconduct.”

Besides allowing body cameras, the bill would create statewide standards for their use and would impose a surcharge on fines for criminal and traffic offenses to underwrite grants to help police departments purchase the devices. Interestingly, the bill explicitly forbids the special camera grant fund from being tapped to boost the state's checkbook account.

But the far-reaching legislation involves much more than body cameras. Among its other provisions are ones that would:

  • call for an independent investigation of all officer-related deaths, including full reports to local prosecutors that would be made public if no charges are filed against the officer. In addition, the state would maintain a professional conduct database of officers dismissed or resigning because of misconduct.
  • prohibit police from using chokeholds.
  • require additional training for officers on topics like constitutional use of authority, procedural justice, civil rights, human rights, and cultural competency.
  • include pedestrian stops in the current law requiring police to collect race and ethnicity data on traffic stops, as part of an anti-racial profiling initiative.
  • establish a Commission on Police Professionalism composed of lawmakers and law enforcement personnel to review police training and performance standards, with a report due by January 31. make clear that citizens can record police officers performing their duties.
  • provide additional funding for the state police crime laboratory to help relieve the evidence backlog. The department would have to provide the governor and Legislature quarterly reports on its progress in processing forensic biology and DNA evidence.

Lawmakers also approved significant changes in how the state deals with juvenile offenders, reflecting growing interest in finding alternatives to juvenile prisons for youthful wrongdoers, or “rightsizing the criminal justice system and expanding restorative justice opportunities,” as advocates urged.

Senate Bill 1560 would prohibit youths charged with misdemeanors from being sent to state juvenile prisons. “Because low-level juvenile offenders sent to prisons often advance to more serious crimes after incarceration, public safety can be improved by keeping them out of prisons and delivering rehabilitation services in their local communities,” according to a statement from the Illinois Justice Project, a Chicago-based not-for-profit group promoting criminal justice changes they believe will cut recidivism. The measure also would require counties to detain youths charged with parole violations, rather than sending them back to state prisons. The bill is pending action by the governor, after passing the Senate 55-0 and the House 79-35.

House Bill 3718 would require a juvenile court judge to review the case of any youth charged with a crime not involving physical harm to a person before the offender could be transferred to adult court. Currently, juveniles charged with certain offenses are transferred automatically to adult court. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, a proponent, estimated the change would reduce by more than half automatic transfers in her county. The measure cleared the Senate 48 to 6 and the House 79 to 32 and is on the governor’s desk.

House Bill 2567 is intended to keep children under age 13 out of prison. Local authorities would be required to seek community-based youth services for the offender, who could be placed in detention only if no services could be provided. Also awaiting action by the governor, the bill passed the House 82-33 and the Senate 54 to 0.

Finally, a comprehensive proposal to combat a burgeoning epidemic of heroin abuse easily cleared both chambers, 114 to 0 in the House and 46 to 4 in the Senate, and is on Rauner’s desk. House Bill 1 would:

  • require police, fire, and other emergency responders to have ready to use naloxone or some other antidote to heroin overdoses. Training would be mandated for emergency personnel, school officials, and others who might need to administer the antidote.
  • create a prescription drug return program and expand funding for drug education programs specifically dealing with heroin and other opioid drugs.
  • require Medicaid and private health insurers to cover drug addiction treatment and rehabilitative services.

Police-community relations, juvenile crime, drug abuse — all divisive issues that historically have engendered strong and opposing opinions among Illinois legislators.

Yet in each area, major changes in Illinois policy won lopsided approval from lawmakers who were willing to work together to craft legislation that probably no one would consider perfect, but that the overwhelming majority deemed good enough to support.

Sooner rather than later, one would hope the Republican governor and his Democratic antagonists follow the example set by rank-and-file lawmakers.