With crime a major concern across Illinois, Democrats are under pressure for legislative action

Gov. JB Pritzker
Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker speaks during an assembly on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022, at Benito Juarez Community Academy High School. Pritzker and Illinois Democrats are under pressure to act to fight rising crime. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Gov. JB Pritzker
Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker speaks during an assembly on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022, at Benito Juarez Community Academy High School. Pritzker and Illinois Democrats are under pressure to act to fight rising crime. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

With crime a major concern across Illinois, Democrats are under pressure for legislative action

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House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, with his eye this fall toward becoming the first Republican Illinois House speaker in 25 years, believes crime will be a defining issue — perhaps the defining issue — that drives the governor and other Democrats from power in Springfield.

“Pritzker’s going to lose because his record on crime and public safety is horrendous, and communities across the state are seeing the effects of his dangerous and reckless policies,” the Western Springs Republican said of JB Pritzker, who’s seeking a second term in November.

Democrats could use their House and Senate supermajorities this week, ahead of the scheduled Friday adjournment of the spring legislative session, to burnish their records on crime to make sure predictions like that don’t become reality.

But will they?

And will voters find what, if anything, Democrats do this week to be meaningful?

Chicago and the collar counties are immersed in a well-documented crime surge. The region is reeling from generational highs in homicides and carjackings and a rise in shoplifting rings that have targeted Michigan Avenue and suburban malls. As victims proliferate, crime is an issue that threatens to move voters, potentially displacing typical election year themes like education, health care and state finances in importance.

Homicides handled last year by the Cook County Medical Examiner reached a 27-year high. Carjackings in Chicago exceeded 2,100 last year, the most in at least 20 years. And smash-and-grab retail thefts, where groups enter high-end stores and clear out armfuls of merchandise in plain view, have drawn national attention.

Against that backdrop, Pritzker faced a bipartisan repudiation last week by the Democratic-controlled state Senate over his nomination of two Prisoner Review Board members who voted to grant parole to a pair convicted of murdering Chicago police officers decades ago.

One choice resigned ahead of a confirmation vote. The other, Eleanor Wilson, was voted down decisively by senators of both parties, leaving the Prisoner Review Board without enough voting members to function.

Republicans also have called for the repeal of last year’s SAFE-T Act, a sprawling criminal justice package that eliminates cash bail next year, requires all police to wear body cameras and changed the standards for felony murder to make it more difficult to charge possible participants, among other things.

Despite the attacks on his record, Pritzker isn’t shying away from his support of the law and said he remains committed to confronting the state’s crime wave.

“Obviously, crime across the state is up. We’ve seen this across the nation. There’s no doubt that …the pandemic recession caused people to be out of work, caused people to get involved with things they wouldn’t have otherwise, and so we’ve got to make sure that we’re bringing order back, that we’re putting away the people who actually committed crimes,” he said.

“And that means supporting the (Illinois State Police). It means supporting law enforcement, and I’m going to continue to do that with the work that we do to not only build up the (state police) and local law enforcement but also to make sure that the laws are adhered to,” he said.

While largely on the sidelines this spring on any new legislative responses to crime, Pritzker has called for toughened penalties for anyone convicted of killing state child welfare workers after the on-the-job murders of two Department of Children and Family caseworkers since 2017. That legislation passed the Senate last week on a bipartisan roll call and is awaiting House action.

Meanwhile, legislation aimed at high-end shoplifting rings responsible for “smash-and-grab” thefts could face new criminal penalties under legislation that has bipartisan support and is awaiting a Senate vote.

State Sen. Suzy Glowiak Hilton, D-Western Springs, said her measure would create the new crime of organized retail theft and target those who steal merchandise with the intention of reselling it.

Her legislative district includes the Oak Brook Center shopping mall, where smash-and-grab attackers hit a Louis Vuitton store in November, the Nordstrom department store twice in one day in December and the Burberry in January.

“I don’t want my constituents or those in Illinois to feel like they can’t go to Oak Brook Mall that I represent to do their shopping,” she said. “It’s peace of mind. When you figure you’re going to go Christmas shopping, you certainly don’t want to be in the midst of a smash-and-grab.”

The DCFS legislation and the retail theft measure are rare instances in which Democrats have gotten behind any form of penalty enhancement. Measures toughening penalties for attacks on election judges, sexual assault of children, hate crimes against police officers, vandalism of historic monuments and the sexual trafficking of children all have stalled.

Last week, Senate and House Democrats steered away from penalty enhancements like those in pushing a series of anti-crime bills, including measures to set up a state anonymous tip hotline and create a bipartisan crime-reduction task force, among other things.

“I had another shooting on my block a couple weeks ago, and people are sick and tired of the failed status quo,” said state Sen. Robert Peters, D-Chicago. “They are sick and tired of — excuse my language — this bulls—. And I am sick and tired of it, too.

“Our communities need to be heard. Our leaders must be brave. Our state must move away from the failed tough-on-crime status quo, and our crisis is a moment for change,” Peters said.

Another component of legislation being pushed by Peters and state Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria, would establish a financial grant program to aid crime witnesses who are aiding law enforcement if they are facing a “discernible threat of violent crime.”

Gordon-Booth, the No. 3-ranking House Democrat, has a personal stake in that legislation because a witness helped lead to the prosecution of the murderer of her 22-year-old son.

“As many of you know, I lost my son to gun violence in the summer of 2014 when I was nine months pregnant with my daughter. My son was killed at a party, at a birthday party with some friends. There was an individual who was a hero, an absolute hero. No criminal record. Nothing to gain. Nothing to give other than her story, to say why what happened to my son was wrong,” Gordon-Booth said.

“Trust me, we need people to come forward. If we want to solve crime, we have to give law enforcement — but we also have to give communities — the actual tools for solving crime,” she continued. “I will tell you without that witness, our family probably never would have gotten justice.”

In an interview with WBEZ, Gordon-Booth, who leads a House working group on public safety, hinted more could come this week, focused on areas like carjackings, shootings, police recruitment and retention and community investment.

“I like the path that we’re on. Certainly, our work is not done. We have a lot more work to do. But I believe at the culmination of midnight April 8, we’ll have a number of items that we’ll be able to point to to show all of our various constituencies of how we’ve come together,” she said.

“I believe we’re in a position to bring forth some thoughtful legislation around the really key, important areas,” Gordon-Booth said.

National polling in December by the Associated Press and University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center found voters put more than a dozen other domestic issues above crime in terms of importance for the federal government to be dealing with.

But in Illinois, Republicans seem to be putting many of their political eggs in one basket on the issue of crime,

Republican Richard Irvin, the Aurora mayor being backed in his gubernatorial bid by billionaire hedge fund operator Kenneth Griffin, has attacked Pritzker’s public safety record on a near-daily basis and is dismissing what anti-crime initiatives Democrats have put on the table so far this year as “election-year gimmicks.”

Another candidate in the GOP gubernatorial primary, state Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, is pushing legislation to reinstitute the death penalty for anyone convicted of killing a cop and vowed last fall to “bring back law and order to the streets of Chicago.”

Durkin, the House Republican leader, believes Democrats have misread the impact crime is having on voters, particularly in the same collar counties that delivered the governorship to Pritzker in 2018. And for that, he said, they will pay a price this fall.

“They’ve read the tea leaves. They understand the polling on this. It’s going to be very destructive. They want to have it both ways and try to say that they are being smart on crime while keeping their progressive wing up. No one’s going to fall for it. We know exactly what they’ve done, and there is no excuse. They’ll have to answer for it next November,” he said.

“They’re kind of in a difficult spot, but it’s all self-inflicted,” said Durkin, who then offered a prediction for the final week of the Legislature. “I don’t expect them to make any meaningful changes that are going to be helpful to victims, neighborhoods and police.”

Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @davemckinney.