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Eye On Illinois: Parties seek to control crime narrative as campaigns loom

What wins: facts or feelings?

Regarding political campaigns, the latter clearly dominates. The most recent example is Republicans targeting Democrats’ considerable power by amplifying news about violent crimes. A common strategy nationwide, it’s especially relevant in Illinois because 12 months ago Democrats approved criminal justice omnibus bills over heavy Republican opposition.

The playbook is simple and effective: trumpet the effect, link to the cause. And don’t get bogged down in details.

Consider statements this week from two Republican gubernatorial candidates:

“JB Pritzker eliminated cash bond.” (Jesse Sullivan, Jan. 10)

“Last legislative session, Gov. Pritzker passed the most liberal catch and release crime reform bill in the nation.” (Gary Rabine, Jan. 12)

Political pedantry requires noting Pritzker didn’t “pass” anything; a governor can only sign legislation that passes both legislative chambers. But feelings win on the campaign trail, so what matters is Pritzker’s undeniable support and signature, not separation of powers semantics.

But peel back another layer. The January 2021 votes didn’t immediately end cash bail in Illinois. Rather, they opened a two-year window to develop uniform standards for how judges can grant or deny pretrial release based on criminal charges, flight risk and imminent danger.

So not only is cash bail still in effect here, but the rules courts will follow when it goes away remain undefined. When that clarity does arrive, judges can still detain criminal suspects before trial. The only thing eliminated is a system that allows people to buy their way out of temporary lockup.

Lawmakers passed two omnibus follow-up bills, one at the end of the spring session – endorsed by the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police and Illinois State Police – and another last week. While neither altered the bail reform timetable, further reform is on the table.

Ultimately, although Democrats are on sound legal footing, they have a messaging problem. Republicans won’t relent, and why would they?

State Sen. Sara Feigenholtz and state Rep. Maraget Croke, both Chicago Democrats, recently discussed concerns about bail reform. On Wednesday, Croke filed House Bill 4468, which would establish a list of charges that would make a suspect ineligible for pretrial electronic monitoring: “attempted first-degree murder, reckless homicide, aggravated vehicular hijacking in which the defendant was armed with a firearm or other dangerous weapon, being an armed habitual criminal and any offense that requires the defendant to register as a sex offender under the Sex Offender Registration Act.”

Democrats obviously hope to reshape narratives. The ambiguity of waiting for new standards isn’t serving them politically. Neither is what Croke called “a concerning lack of public data” regarding electronic monitoring, the present problem Rabine and Sullivan are actually addressing, even if their messaging is unclear.

Feelings win votes. Shrewd politicians act accordingly.

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