Eye On Illinois: Enhanced punishment not best way to protect workers from tragedy

Punishment does not guarantee protection.

This unfortunate reality doesn’t stop politicians from trying to use legislation to give the impression of action in the face of tragedy.

Consider House Bill 3933, a proposal that dates to 2019. Back then it was House Bill 4586, introduced in the wake of the death of a Department of Children and Family Services worker trying to remove a young child from parental custody. Another DCFS worker died on the job this week after being stabbed during a home visit.

Both instances were tragic, with details left sparse out of respect for the loved ones of people simply trying to do their jobs.

HB 3933 amends the state criminal code so attacking workers with the DCFS, Adult Protective Services, Department on Aging or the Long Term Care Ombudsman Program becomes a Class 2 felony with possible elevation to Class 1 based on the victim’s injuries. A prosecutor would have to prove the assailant knew the victim was working in those capacities, performing official duties and that the battery was intended to prevent those duties or as retaliation for such work.

This type of penalty escalation already exists for people who attack people in other lines of work, such as a firefighter or teacher. It would add another wrinkle to a deeply layered battery penalty structure with different definitions for “simple” and “aggravated” battery that incorporate factors such as intent, location of the offense, status of the victim, use of a weapon and more.

But in almost every circumstance, the specific fines and sentences are not directly protective. There is never a situation where it is legal to throw punches at an on-duty nurse. Does the enhanced penalty make someone think twice? Kicking the guy next to you in the gut is likely illegal whether you do it in a grocery store or a church, but in the eyes of the law, one is a greater offense.

The possible exception to this rule is enhanced penalties applicable to certain driving offenses, from speeding in a work zone to failing to motor safely around a stopped vehicle, and that’s only because the highways are rich with signs reminding people in the moment of the extra consequences.

Whether the job is DCFS case worker or law enforcement officer – another field that recently has experienced line-of-duty homicide - legislators must accept that punishment as a deterrent has limited effect. Adequately funding government agencies and properly equipping workers are more effective efforts, although such reforms are subject to weighty cost-benefit political calculations.

We cannot prevent all tragedy, but we can do more to protect those who serve. Punishing criminals is an important step, but that alone doesn’t stop the next unthinkable outcome.

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