Criminal justice bill passes through Illinois House and Senate

Sweeping bill seeks to outfit all police with body cameras, eliminate cash bail as a pre-trial release requirement

Huntley Police Department and Village Hall.

Leaders in McHenry County law enforcement say their input wasn’t considered in the drafting of a criminal justice omnibus bill that passed through the House Wednesday, while others claim police have for years led the conversation surrounding reform.

The Illinois Senate passed a criminal justice omnibus bill early Wednesday after a grueling 20 hours of politicking during Tuesday’s lame duck session. The Illinois Legislative Black Caucus’ bill then passed in the House with 60 votes about 11:30 a.m. Wednesday. It now will head to the governor’s office.

“For Black communities all across the state of Illinois, the time is now to go from protest to progress,” state Rep. Justin Slaughter, D–Chicago, said moments before House votes were cast Wednesday. “Criminal justice reform cannot wait.”

The legislation is made up of several provisions that touch all facets of the criminal justice system. The Pretrial Fairness Act, a longtime passion project to end cash bail in Illinois by state Sen. Robert Peters, D-Chicago, and a complete overhaul of police certification crafted by Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul both were absorbed into the omnibus package.

Under this new legislation, the Law Enforcement Officer-Worn Body Camera Act also is amended so that all law enforcement agencies must eventually use body cameras. Additionally, the General Assembly intends to establish statewide use-of-force standards by 2022 while making changes to what are and are not considered acceptable uses of force in Illinois statute.

The legislation, an initiative of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, was tied to a new amendment to House Bill 3653, introduced in the early morning hours Wednesday following mostly private negotiations that stripped down many controversial provisions in the bill.

The Senate met to debate the bill about 4 a.m. Wednesday before the measure passed, 32-to-23, about 5 a.m., moving it to the House floor, which voted with less than an hour to spare before the new General Assembly inauguration.

Crystal Lake Police Chief James Black, who also serves as the president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, was among those critical of the bill. Although Black and fellow local police chiefs said they’re not opposed to “positive police reform,” they worry that the bill is proposing too much, too fast.

“For members of the General Assembly to say we have provided input and they don’t understand why we oppose this legislation is disingenuous,” Black said.

Reached by phone Wednesday, however, Restore Justice Illinois Executive Director Jobi Cates said police have long led the conversation surrounding criminal justice reform and in doing so, stunted some of the progress the bill’s supporters hope to see.

“It’s going to be scary for them but I think overall it is the direction that we need to move in order to break our addiction with incarceration throughout the state.”

Qualified immunity

Most notably, Black and others including McHenry Police Chief John Birk and Huntley Police Chief Robert Porter took issue with the bill’s proposed elimination of qualified immunity for officers.

“I can tell you from talking to my own staff here, there’s a lot of people very concerned,” Porter said. “I’ve never seen such a wholesale impact on employee morale.”

The amendment would have removed individual officers’ protection against liability in civil suits if they violated rights guaranteed in the Illinois Constitution. That provision was gutted during discussions that took place between Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning.

Instead, the legislation creates a yearlong Task Force on Constitutional Rights and Remedies. The 18-member body will investigate and develop procedures to protect constitutional rights and remedies should those rights be violated. The task force will specifically look at the qualified immunity provided to law enforcement.

A report with policy recommendations must be submitted to the governor’s office and the General Assembly by May, with the task force being dissolved by the legislation at the start of the new year.

Pleased to see the provision addressing qualified immunity removed, Black still expressed concerns with the bill’s current form.

“What’s lost in this is the voice of crime victims and the unintended consequences that might happen to our community, but I guess our lawmakers have to live with that even though law enforcement has to pick up the pieces,” Black said after the House vote on Wednesday.

Body cameras

Although several police departments throughout the county said they were in favor of police-worn body cameras, some expressed frustration with the “billion-dollar-plus price tag” that they felt was unaccounted for in the sweeping bill.

“There needs to be a better way,” Birk said. “There has to be a funding mechanism to support those transitions.”

The largest agencies must have body cameras in place by 2022, while all agencies, no matter how small, must have body cameras implemented by 2025.

Originally, this provision was touted as the “defund the police” bill by law enforcement groups opposing the Black Caucus legislation because of a non-compliance penalty that reduced how much state funding municipalities received for each year law enforcement agencies under their control violated the mandate.

Now, compliance is rewarded and the penalty has been removed, with ILETSB giving preference in grant funding to agencies following the mandate.

Pretrial detention

Effective Jan. 1, 2023, all bail bonds and conditions of bail will be replaced by a system of pretrial release to be developed by the Illinois courts based on a detainee’s alleged crime, their risk of not appearing for their court date, and the threat or danger they may pose to the community if released.

McHenry County Sheriff Bill Prim and McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally shared concerns on the matter Tuesday afternoon.

“Conceptually, I’m for the elimination of cash bail,” Kenneally said on Tuesday several hours before Senate votes were cast. “I think that it makes sense but it really depends on the details and the specifics of how you’re trying to do it.”

Prim similarly worried that eliminating cash bail without proper safeguards in place could do more harm than good.

“It opens up the door for the same victims to be re-victimized in the communities they’re trying to protect,” Prim said Tuesday afternoon.

The original version of the bill abolished cash bail effective immediately, but that timeline was extended by two years to accommodate the transition and allow for uniform standards to be developed.

Bail reform in Illinois has been in the making for years. When the Bail Reform Act took effect on Jan. 1, 2018, it shifted the focus of pretrial detention from a person’s financial ability to post bail to their threat to public safety and likeliness to make court appearances.

The measure was created to prevent the long-term detention of people who face relatively minor charges but struggle to come up with bail money.

Since then, however, McHenry County has seen about a 40% decline in restitution payments made to victims, Kenneally said.

When a person is convicted of a crime, a judge can order the defendant to pay the victim cash for out-of-pocket expenses, damages, losses, or injuries that resulted from the offense. In cases where a defendant has already posted some amount of bond, a portion of that money can be used toward restitution.

Kenneally now fears that even fewer victims will receive their court-ordered restitution.

“Much of the money goes to paying restitution, so I think that may not be a bad idea to at least think about that and remedy that,” Kenneally said.

The state’s attorney could not be reached for comment after the House vote Wednesday.

Celebration and criticism

Despite claims that the bill’s passage was rushed, Cates said the legislation includes criminal justice reform that has been in the works for years.

“I think it’s incredibly complex and there’s a lot going on in that bill that represents years and years of work and proposals by organizations and individuals who have been impacted by the criminal legal systems,” Cates said.

Restore Justice Illinois has long supported reforming a law that allows for the filing of first-degree murder charges against co-defendants who may have participated in the underlying forcible felony (such as a robbery or residential burglary) even if they didn’t personally cause any injury to the victim, Cates said.

“Right now we have a system that doesn’t distinguish between Jeffrey Dahmer and a 17-year-old who’s caught up in gang violence,” Cates said.

Overall, the bill could help to balance what Cates referred to as two separate criminal justice systems: one for “poor Black people” and another reserved for “well-off white people.”

“Privilege is that we get to keep going, and there are whole communities of people who make one mistake and that’s it,” Cates said.

Republican Senate Minority Leader Dan McConchie, R-Hawthorn Woods, tweeted his concerns with the bill’s latest provisions, which he said were released at 3:04 a.m. Wednesday.

“Debate started at 4:04 [a.m.]. No one can read this in 1 hour and know what all is in it,” McConchie wrote. “This is not the way democracy is supposed to work.”

State Sen. Craig Wilcox, R-McHenry, also voiced his disapproval of the bill, claiming it would have been impossible for each Senate member to have fully reviewed the legislation during the early hours before votes were cast

“The way the majority party chose to ram through the proposal with little time for review or debate was an abuse of the legislative process that dragged on throughout all hours of the night,” Wilcox said. “We literally had one hour to review this massive bill. That’s not open, transparent and responsible government.”

A group of local community organizers who go by the name Activists for Racial Equality on Facebook, have been pushing for police transparency and the implementation of body cameras since 46-year old Black man George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police on May 25.

In addition to the provisions laid out in this legislation, local activists also are calling for improved emergency response methods that include social workers, mental health professionals and people who specialize in adolescent issues and trauma.

In a statement issued Wednesday, Raoul said the police reform will create uniformity, promote professionalism and increase transparency in the police certification and decertification process.

A police certification provision backed by the attorney general’s office also was added to the bill. It gives the state more power over who can be a member of law enforcement and makes it easier to decertify and terminate the employment of problematic officers.

“These certification reforms are the result of collaboration between my office, law enforcement, advocates and the sponsors – Rep. Justin Slaughter and Sen. Elgie Sims,” Raoul said. “Sen. Tim Bivins began this journey years ago, and I am proud that today we have reached our destination and will be implementing meaningful reform that will promote professionalism, increase transparency and restore the public’s trust in law enforcement.”

• Capitol News Illinois reporting was included in this article.