EYE ON ILLINOIS: Plenty of important work remains on criminal justice overhaul

In the quest for reform, legislation is significant, but not conclusive.

That’s one takeaway from last week’s passage of criminal justice omnibus bills, especially in light of how many hotly debated proposals evolved from immediate impact to gradual process.

Rather than simply end cash bail with the governor’s signature, the legislation now creates a two-year window to develop uniform standards for how courts will grant or deny pretrial release based on the criminal charges, flight risk and imminent danger to the community.

Likewise, qualified immunity won’t change immediately. A Task Force on Constitutional Rights and Remedies, with 18 members, will spend a year studying legal protections granted specifically to law enforcement and balance that privilege against the civilians’ rights. The body will submit policy recommendations to the governor and lawmakers before its dissolution.

Creating a commission and assigning deadlines wins hearts and minds upfront, but we need look back only to last year’s legislative ethics commission to see what happens without penalties for failing to deliver the promised report.

Also in the category of “what does this look like in practice?” are increased powers of the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, specifically three databases that will have to be evaluated to see if they prove worth the effort. One, only for government and justice system purposes, will log every officer’s certification status, employment history and misconduct record. The board also would maintain two public databases, one allowing the public to track misconduct leading to officer decertification and another including all completed officer misconduct investigations but without identifying information.

Agencies would be required to check the private database during the hiring process. But audits will be needed to make sure the right information is going in and that it’s affecting employment decisions in the intended fashion. It’s not difficult to envision problems with the public databases, through either unfounded complaints sticking unfairly to an officer, privacy invasions if too much information is released or Freedom of Information Act struggles if too much is redacted.

That’s not intended as a criticism of the databases in general – spend some time poking around the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation website to learn how many different careers require a state license and what happens to those who break the rules – but a reminder that changing policy is only the first step of a long journey toward improved public service.

All that said, it’s difficult to take joy in these advancements knowing they resulted from predawn votes on rushed bills in the session’s waning hours. The next thing lawmakers need to reform is their own rules to eliminate this type of lame-duck chicanery. Progressive outcomes needn’t emerge from regressive strategies.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.