Kendall County law enforcement officials react to criminal justice reform bill

Sheriff, police chiefs warn of end to cash bail, extra financial burden

Kendall County officials and local state lawmakers are reacting to a sweeping Illinois criminal justice law described by some as “the end of law enforcement as we know it,” which passed the General Assembly and now awaits Gov. JB Pritzker’s signature.

HB 3653, a 700-plus page bill approved by lawmakers in the lame duck session Wednesday, Jan. 13, is set to eliminate cash bail in the state and significantly increase oversight of police officers. The Illinois Legislative Black Caucus pushed hard for the legislation and have hailed it as a step forward for racial justice and transparency.

Yet Republicans and law enforcement groups are not at all thrilled about the new law.

“We were definitely willing to come to the table and work on meaningful criminal justice reforms, police accountability measures and other public safety issues that need to be addressed,” said State Rep. Keith Wheeler, a Republican who represents Kendall County for the 50th district. Wheeler, like other lawmakers, remained at the state capitol through the early hours of Wednesday debating the legislation.

“But trying to examine a 700 plus page bill in the middle of the night - that’s not a thoughtful approach to law enforcement reform,” the state representative remarked.

Though the bill touches every aspect of the criminal justice system, the most notable reforms include the following:

  • Statewide use of police body cameras by 2025
  • Expands officer misconduct database
  • Bans the use of chokeholds to detain a suspect
  • Requires a predicate offense for resisting arrest
  • Mandated reporting of deaths that occur in police custody
  • Ends suspension of drivers’ licenses for failure to pay court fees
  • Bans the purchase of military equipment like grenade launchers, weaponized vehicles and .50-caliber or higher firearms

The Kendall County Sheriff’s Office decried the bill in a Facebook post last week, saying it would “essentially eliminate law enforcement in your communities as we know it.”

“Bills of this magnitude cannot be taken lightly,” Sheriff Dwight Baird said in the social media post. “The negative effects of this bill will impact our state and local communities immediately, and last for years to come.”

Law enforcement groups ultimately succeeded in stopping an end of qualified immunity proposed in the original bill, which would have allowed civil suits to be brought against officers for misconduct. Another portion of the bill, though, would allow officers to be “decertified” for an array of misdemeanor convictions and misconduct.

In a statement, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois celebrated the bill’s passage, stating “our criminal legal system relies too much on incarceration and punishment and does not provide appropriate opportunity for diversion and rehabilitation.”

Yet concerns remain over the end of cash bail, a first for any state, and new training mandates that will be required for officers.

“This bill doesn’t take into consideration any issue when it comes to safety of victims, the safety of communities,” Kendall County State’s Attorney Eric Weis said in an interview prior to the bill’s passage. “How do we make our victims safe? That hasn’t been addressed. What do we do with repeat offenders who continually violate court orders? Those are big concerns because the safety of the victim are as important as the rights of the defendant.”

Yorkville Police Chief Jim Jensen seconded concerns for victim’s rights, yet recognized the need for more oversight for officers.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that reform is needed in law enforcement in some way shape or form,” Jensen said. “But some of the things they’re putting it this House Bill are just irresponsible, and it’s really going to put undue financial pressures on villages, cities and municipalities for some of the unfunded (training) mandates they’re putting in.”

With the bill now awaiting Pritzker’s signature, local law enforcement officials are already evaluating how it will change their work going forward.

“My job is to adapt to this and make sure, that regardless of whether or not I agree with the plan, that we’re operating in adherence to it,” said Oswego Police Chief Jeffrey Burgner. “I think some of the things that I’ve seen in (the bill) are going to make recruitment and getting officers to come into this profession more challenging.”

Lucas Robinson

Lucas Robinson covers politics, courts, schools and the pandemic in Kendall County and Yorkville for Shaw Media. His work has previously appeared in the Chicago Reader, the Buenos Aires Times, Open Secrets and USAToday. He grew up in Muncie, Indiana.