6 Key Reforms In The Massive Criminal Justice Bill Illinois Lawmakers Passed Last Week

Crime Reform Bill Justin Slaughter
Illinois State Rep. Justin Slaughter, D-Chicago, left, celebrates with lawmakers and staff after the criminal justice reform bill passes the Illinois House during the lame-duck session for the Illinois House of Representatives held at the Bank of Springfield Center, Wednesday, January 13, 2021, in Springfield, Ill. Justin L. Fowler / The State Journal-Register, provided via AP Pool
Crime Reform Bill Justin Slaughter
Illinois State Rep. Justin Slaughter, D-Chicago, left, celebrates with lawmakers and staff after the criminal justice reform bill passes the Illinois House during the lame-duck session for the Illinois House of Representatives held at the Bank of Springfield Center, Wednesday, January 13, 2021, in Springfield, Ill. Justin L. Fowler / The State Journal-Register, provided via AP Pool

6 Key Reforms In The Massive Criminal Justice Bill Illinois Lawmakers Passed Last Week

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In the waning hours of the lame-duck session of the Illinois General Assembly, lawmakers passed a sweeping omnibus bill meant to reshape the state’s criminal justice system.

The legislation, which is now awaiting Gov. JB Pritzker’s signature, is more than 760 pages and was still being reworked just hours before the final vote.

The size and scope of the bill, combined with the eleventh hour scramble, has law enforcement leaders, court officials, experts and advocates all still poring over the bill, trying to figure out what exactly has been changed and what implementation will look like.

Lawmakers pushed the bill as their legislative response to the killing of George Floyd and the summer of protests against police violence. But the bill will affect a lot more than policing.

WBEZ has this breakdown of some of the changes mandated by the legislation that go beyond police reform, they include the abolition of cash bail and five other changes that could fundamentally alter the state’s courts, prisons and more.

Three Phone Calls For Arrestees

If the omnibus bill is signed into law, police across the state would be required to allow people in their custody to make at least three phone calls within the first three hours of being arrested.

Chicago politicians have recently been debating changing the city’s own phone call requirements for arrestees. Current state law mandates one phone call within a “reasonable” amount of time.

Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli said her office has found that arrestees “do not get phone calls in a reasonable time or ever.”

She said the change would “put teeth” into the phone call requirement.

“It’s always been a crime for law enforcement … to not give people a phone call,” Campanelli said. “But of course, nobody’s been held accountable.”

Campanelli said requiring phone calls, and getting attorneys involved early in the process gives people more faith in the criminal justice system.

“If you are treated unfairly at a police station and you are … not being allowed to call your loved one or call a lawyer … it gives all of us in the system, you know, it makes all of us look bad,” Campanelli said. “It’s not trustworthy. It’s not a system that people should be proud of.”

In a statement to Illinois lawmakers, Chief James R. Black, president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police warned the three phone calls requirement would “significantly interfere with the ability of law enforcement to do its job.”

The chiefs association also says the requirement could be logistically difficult, for instance when there are mass arrests or if an arrestee is drunk or otherwise incapacitated.

Prison Death Transparency

Illinois’ prison system is notoriously opaque when it comes to the deaths of people in its custody. In 2014 WBEZ investigated deaths in Illinois prisons and found the state’s records to be “scattershot and incomplete.” In a legal fight to keep death records secret, the department acknowledged it did not keep a central record of inmate deaths.

Four years later, WBEZ found the department was still keeping shoddy and incomplete records, and it wasn’t just reporters struggling to get the truth. Family members of people who died in state custody were also being kept in the dark.

“It is critically important for us to know how people who are in our prisons … die,” said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, director of the independent prison watchdog the John Howard Association. “When they die away from loved ones, away from the eyes of family and friends, there are often questions raised about what happened, and we don’t often get those questions answered.”

But this new legislation could change all that.

The criminal justice bill requires the Illinois Department of Corrections, and all other law enforcement agencies, to investigate and report all deaths in custody. It also requires the agencies to notify family members of the dead and give an accurate accounting of the cause of death.

The Illinois Sheriff’s Association previously opposed the mandate. Jim Kaitschuk, executive director of the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association, said jails are already required to provide information to both the Department of Justice and the state Department of Corrections.

“Most jails have limited resources already, and we traditionally oppose any mandate,” Kaitschuk told WBEZ in 2019.

Changes to Victim Compensation

Illinois, like every other state in America, has a program to compensate victims of crime to help pay for unexpected costs like medical care, mental health help, funerals and the cost of missed work.

Experts say the program has the potential to be a “powerful” tool to lessen trauma and stop the cycle of violence.

However, those same experts found that barriers to accessing the money made it so Illinois residents are among the least likely to apply for victim compensation in the country.

The bill would remove some of those barriers for victims, expanding the eligibility from legal relatives to anyone who lived in the home with a murder victim, increasing the maximum given out to victims and families, allowing for more time to apply for the compensation and loosening requirements that victims cooperate with law enforcement.

Aswad Thomas, managing director of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice said he has heard from many survivors in Illinois who had been unable to get help because of the restrictions the legislation seeks to remove. He said expanding the eligibility will help “nontraditional” families.

Thomas said the legislation would take Illinois from being one of the worst in the country at helping crime victims to being “one of the best compensation programs in the country.”

“This is a huge step in the right direction [but] there’s still a lot more work to do,” Thomas said.

Restrictions On ‘Resisting Arrest’ Arrests

Sharone Mitchell with the Illinois Justice Project said that during his time as a defense attorney, he saw too many cases with defendants charged with resisting arrest but no other criminal charges.

You have people who get stuck, who get arrested for resisting arrest and there was no real basis for the interaction [with police]. And that just doesn’t make sense,” Mitchell said.

It’s a common complaint amongst activists and defense attorneys. The legislation passed last week says a person cannot be arrested for resisting “unless there is an underlying offense for which the person was initially subject to arrest.”

It means resisting arrest can’t be the only charge filed against a person unless police can prove in court they were attempting to make the arrest for a different legitimate reason before the person resisted.

“This bill doesn’t change the fact if you assault an officer or batter an officer, that you will be charged and you will face consequences,” Mitchell said. “But this is just common sense. There should be a basis for the arrest if you’re going to be charged with defeating that arrest.”

Mitchell said he believed the change could also help lower encounters between police and people of color by taking away the power officers have to make unjustified stops and then make an arrest based on resisting that stop.

In a statement posted to Facebook, Kendall County Sheriff Dwight Baird said he was concerned about the legislation taking away “an officer’s discretion to make an arrest.”

He said the huge bill was rushed through and he is “concerned that the effects of many of these changes weren’t well thought out and there will be negative unintended consequences.”

Ending Mandatory Supervised Release For Some People Leaving Prison

Illinois inmates serve a term of “mandatory supervised release” after they get out of prison, during which they report to an officer and have to follow certain rules. Critics say it’s a system that perpetuates mass incarceration by sending people back to prison for sometimes insignificant rule violations.

The new legislation would make it so that supervision is no longer mandatory for people convicted of class three and class four felonies (the two lowest felony levels). Instead the state’s prisoner review board will have the discretion to impose supervision if necessary based on a “risk and needs assessment” of the individual inmate.

The legislation would also cut the time that other former inmates have to spend on supervised release.

Vollen-Katz said the changes will allow parole officers to focus on helping people successfully re-enter society.

Right now, [parole] caseloads are really high, and that doesn’t give the agents much opportunity to get to really know their clients, understand them and get them the help they need. It becomes much more of a surveillance model, which is what we have right now. Rather than being able to support people, it’s just surveilling them to catch them when they do something wrong,” Vollen-Katz said. “This allows us to put the emphasis at the front end, which is where it should be in determining what it is people need and providing them with support and surveillance so they can be successful.”

Abolition Of Cash Bail

One of the most significant changes from the legislation, should it be signed by the governor, is the abolition of cash bail statewide. Cook County court leaders all support this change, which would fundamentally change the functioning of the courts.

The legislation would mean almost everyone would be released from jail while awaiting trial, unless prosecutors can convince a judge the defendant is a danger to the public or a threat to flee. In those cases, the accused would be locked up without the opportunity to buy their way out of jail.

“Cash bail was never about public safety,” said Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. “For far too many people, their assessment was based not on their risk but on their amount that they could afford to pay … so eliminating cash bail makes this about risk and not about poverty.”

Foxx broke with her fellow Illinois prosecutors in supporting the end of bail.

Justin Hood, then-president of the Illinois State’s Attorneys Association, said by getting rid of bail, the criminal justice bill would “put the victims of crime and their families at great risk” and allow more people to evade justice.

The bill gives agencies two years to prepare, with cash bail being wiped out on Jan. 1, 2023.

Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans said the bail reforms he put in place in 2017 have the county already far down the road to ending bail. He said the county will spend the next two years investing in pre-trial services for defendants, like drug treatment and extra help reminding people of upcoming court dates.

Foxx said she expects the radical change to ultimately lead to more criminal trials in Cook County, as fewer people will feel pressured to plead guilty so they can get out of jail.

Foxx and Evans said that’s a good thing, even if it will put more of a burden on the county’s massive court system.

“To the extent that more cases will be tried, I’m perfectly OK with that. We prepare for trials, whether by jury or bench trials anyway,” Evans said. “And while a huge percentage of these cases are ultimately settled, I don’t want it to be settled on the back of the poor or settled on the back of people who [are innocent].”

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.