Reprint from the Chicago Tribune
JAN 13, 2021  5:26 PM

State lawmakers on Wednesday passed a sweeping overhaul of the state’s criminal justice system that would end cash bail and eventually require every police officer in the state to be equipped with a body camera.

The measures, approved by narrow margins in the final hours of the Illinois General Assembly’s lame-duck session, were spurred on by the public outcry over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other African Americans at the hands of police in the last year and represent a signature accomplishment for the Legislative Black Caucus.

The Black Caucus succeeded in passing three of the four pillars of its agenda in just five days. In addition to the criminal justice legislation, the caucus also won approval for wide-ranging measures aimed at addressing inequality in education and economic development.

In another show of its political strength, the House Black Caucus saw one of its own, Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch of west suburban Hillside, elected to replace embattled Michael Madigan as speaker, ending the Southwest Side Democrat’s nearly four-decade reign.

The criminal justice measure was approved by the Senate just before 5 a.m., and the House voted in favor in the final hour before the inauguration of the new General Assembly.

The bill needs a signature from Gov. J.B. Pritzker to become law, and on Wednesday afternoon the governor issued a statement praising the legislation while stopping short of saying he would sign it as approved.

“I have long held that an essential mark of good governance is a willingness to change the laws that have failed the people of Illinois,” Pritzker said. “This criminal justice package carries with it the opportunity to shape our state into a lesson in true justice for the nation.”

The bill was the focus of strong opposition from law enforcement groups and labor unions in the opening days of the legislature’s five-day lame-duck session.

The final package approved by the Senate eliminated some of the more controversial measures, including a provision removing protections for police officers in lawsuits alleging civil rights violations, and one that would withhold state funds from municipalities that fail to comply with body camera requirements.

The package incorporates a proposal from Attorney General Kwame Raoul that would create a more robust system for decertifying officers who engage in misconduct.

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“In the dark of night Illinois legislators made Illinois less safe,” the Illinois Law Enforcement Coalition, a collection of police unions and organizations representing police chiefs and county sheriffs, said in a statement after the Senate’s early morning vote.

Senate Republicans were unified in opposition, among other objections raising an issue with receiving a new version of the bill that ran more than 700 pages about an hour before it came to the floor for debate.

GOP Sen. Jason Barickman of Bloomington argued that prohibiting the use of cash bail could lead to situations where crimes are committed by people awaiting trial.

“The risk exists that individuals will be released back into the community when, in fact, they have a propensity to commit more crimes, thereby making our communities less safe,” Barickman said.

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Supporters note that judges will have discretion to order that people be held if they pose a risk. The measure also includes provisions aimed at improving pretrial services for those facing charges, and would require more reporting on deaths in custody, and would remove the requirement that people filing a complaint against a police officer sign a sworn affidavit.

In a rare break from Democrats’ traditional allies in organized labor, the bill also would put new limits on the subjects that can be negotiated in police union contracts, prohibiting bargaining over the officer decertification process. Sen. Robert Peters, a Chicago Democrat, likened Republican speeches opposing the bill to a game of “fearmongering bingo.” “I urge my colleagues, in 2021, to help me win real safety and justice in my community,” said Peters, who represents a swath of the South Side.


The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Elgie Sims of Chicago, criticized Republicans for talking about gun violence in the city while traditionally opposing gun laws he contended would help reduce violent crime.


Bill sponsor Sen. Elgie Sims works on the Senate floor during a session Jan. 13, 2021, at the Capitol in Springfield.
Bill sponsor Sen. Elgie Sims works on the Senate floor during a session Jan. 13, 2021, at the Capitol in Springfield. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

Sims said his bill would help reduce crime by “fundamentally changing the way we do criminal justice in this state.”

“It is bold,” Sims said. “It is transformational.”


The House sponsor, Democratic Rep. Justin Slaughter of Chicago, pushed back against critics who said the legislation was being rushed. “It’s time to go from protest to progress,” Slaughter said. “Criminal justice reform cannot wait.”

The House and Senate also passed the components of the Black Caucus’ economic agenda, including measures that aim to prevent employers from discriminating against people with criminal records, expand access to state contracts for minority-owned businesses, women and people with disabilities, and clamp down on payday loans. Republicans supported some pieces of the economic agenda. Pritzker indicated he supported the measure, again without saying he would sign it as passed.

Earlier, both chambers passed the Black Caucus’ education agenda, which includes the creation of a standardized assessment for children entering kindergarten that measures literacy, language, mathematics, and social and emotional development, and also aims to expand access to computer science courses.

Each chamber passed a version of the caucus’s health care plan, which included the creation of a community health worker program. But neither took up the other chamber’s version before final adjournment.

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In a statement Tuesday, Pritzker called the education package a step toward ensuring all children “get an equitable and inclusive education — whether it’s prekindergarten or postsecondary education.” “Importantly, this bill also sheds more light on how children from various backgrounds are doing, so that we can target improvements in the future,” Pritzker said.

The legislature’s Democratic supermajorities handed their party’s governor a rare legislative defeat on his major request for the lame-duck session: a proposal to keep the state from losing out on at least $500 million in revenue by separating state tax law from a temporary change to the federal tax code.

Pritzker’s proposal would decouple the state from a new federal tax law that allows business owners to deduct certain losses immediately from their 2020 taxes rather than spreading deductions out over several years. The federal change was made as part of Congress’ first coronavirus relief package. The governor’s plan came to the House floor in the early morning hours Wednesday, but some Democrats joined Republicans in opposing it.

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While the Pritzker administration and the bill’s supporters described it as a tax code clarification, opponents decried it as a tax hike on small businesses. “This is a late-night tax increase when nobody’s watching, and if you vote for it, that’s what you’re voting for,” Republican Rep. Tim Butler of Springfield said.



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