Will Illinois’ Massive Criminal Justice Reforms Be ‘Watered Down?’

Justin Slaughter
State Rep. Justin Slaughter raises his fist to celebrate the passing of the omnibus criminal justice bill on Jan. 13, 2021. Now Slaughter is working to tweak the language in the landmark legislation. Law enforcement groups say it’s necessary. Critics say he’s watering down essential reforms. Justin L. Fowler / The State Journal-Register via AP, Pool, File
Justin Slaughter
State Rep. Justin Slaughter raises his fist to celebrate the passing of the omnibus criminal justice bill on Jan. 13, 2021. Now Slaughter is working to tweak the language in the landmark legislation. Law enforcement groups say it’s necessary. Critics say he’s watering down essential reforms. Justin L. Fowler / The State Journal-Register via AP, Pool, File

Will Illinois’ Massive Criminal Justice Reforms Be ‘Watered Down?’

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When Illinois lawmakers passed a massive criminal justice reform law in January, it was hailed by the Legislative Black Caucus as an achievement that met the moment in a country reeling from George Floyd’s murder by police and the past summer’s racial reckoning. The sponsor of the bill, State Rep. Justin Slaughter, D-Chicago, wept on the house floor as the vote was counted.

The victory lap for Slaughter was not a very long one. Instead, Slaughter and the other Democratic leaders who shepherded the historic bill into law have been beset on all sides, with law enforcement groups pushing hard to claw back many of the legislation’s major provisions; while reformers are tugging in the other direction, seeking to even more radically remake Illinois’ criminal justice system.

The first major moment in that ongoing struggle came near the end of the just-wrapped legislative session, with the law enforcement side claiming victory. 

“No real will”

On the last day of May, Slaughter presented to his colleagues in the House something called a “trailer bill,” modifying the landmark criminal justice legislation to ease requirements around use of force and body camera footage. Notably, the new bill had no opposition from police and prosecutors — a huge swing from their utter disdain for the January legislation.

Rep. Curtis Tarver, D-Chicago, said that support from law enforcement was a sign that his Democratic colleagues were already dismantling their criminal justice pillar, just six months after celebrating its passing.

“This is making it more difficult to hold a police officer accountable for his or her actions,” Tarver said. “Using a misnomer of clarifying something when really what you’re doing is gutting the original intent of the bill is a problem for me.”

Tarver said the substance of the trailer bill, and the process by which it was negotiated, makes him concerned that the heart will be ripped out of the criminal justice reform legislation over time. He believes that back in January, with the murder of Floyd and the summer protests still fresh, his Democratic colleagues felt political pressure to get behind reform. Now that the pressure has lessened, he expects lawmakers to try to undo the historic changes.

“There’s no real will to see this pillar through. It was something that was politically expedient for a lot of people. And it’s unfortunate,” Tarver said.

Tarver joined Republicans in voting against the trailer bill. But several other members of the House Black Caucus voted in favor of the changes, and it passed both chambers of the General Assembly.

Ditching “gotcha language”

The changes in the first trailer bill do not, at first glance, seem monumental. But Ed Wojcicki with the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police said they are important to law enforcement officers.

Wojcicki pointed to two particular changes that were crucial to his lobbying group supporting the trailer bill.

The first is a change to when officers are allowed to view footage from their own body cameras. The legislation passed in January barred officers from watching the video before writing any reports — the intention was to prevent officers from altering their version of events to fit what was captured on camera.

Under the modified language, officers will only be barred from viewing body camera footage if they are writing reports on an incident of alleged police misconduct or if they are reporting on a police shooting or other use of force by an officer.

Wojcicki said the change means officers will be able to view their own footage before writing a report “99% of the time.” He said police leaders viewed the ban on viewing video “gotcha language” intended to catch officers in unintentional mistakes.

“There was a lot of concern that police reports would either become shorter, or non-existent or a lot less helpful to state’s attorneys if the officers were not allowed to review their body camera footage before writing a report,” Wojcicki said. 

The second major change, in the eyes of the Illinois Chiefs, was tweaks to the language on when officers are allowed to shoot their guns. The trailer bill removes language that says officers can only use force when making an arrest if they believe a person has “just” committed a serious crime, and only if the person “cannot be apprehended at a later date.”

Wojcicki said the changes “eliminate” some of the “variables that would make it very difficult for an officer to decide how to proceed in a very tense and violent situation.”

Wojcicki said the police chief’s association looks forward to continuing to modify the legislation in future trailer bills, including getting funding for some of the obligations placed on police departments, and ditching the new requirement that arrestees get three phone calls, something they say would be too burdensome for police.

Despite the support of law enforcement groups, State Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, the House Minority Leader, did not support the trailer legislation. He said it doesn’t go far enough in modifying legislation he believes is fundamentally flawed. 

“It’s fundamentally unfair against law enforcement officers,” Durkin said of the original bill. “I just can’t support a very weak trailer bill to a terrible bill.”

“No funny business”

On the other side are advocates and lawmakers who are worried that the state’s sweeping legislative response to George Floyd’s murder could be slowly whittled down to nothing by subsequent trailer bills. Slaughter has promised more trailer bills to come to clean up other parts of the legislation.

State Sen. Robert Peters, D-Chicago, said he believed the just-passed legislation makes mostly “technical changes” and focuses on implementation questions that needed to be negotiated anyway.

Peters said he had monitored negotiations to make sure there was “no funny business” with the trailer bill.

“Understanding that we have to negotiate on some of this implementation stuff, I believe we have a good trailer bill that still protects the intent of the SAFE-T act,” Peters said.

Still, he said his preference would have been that Democrats not changed any language in the bill, and instead focused on reforms that had been left out of the original legislation - like ending qualified immunity which would make it so individual officers could be sued for misconduct.

Garien Gatewood, director of the Illinois Justice Project, agreed with Peters that he would rather lawmakers be looking toward expanding their reforms, rather than spending their time tweaking the reforms already made. Still Gatewood said there were clear benefits to having law enforcement at the table and invested in the platforms of the SAFE-T Act. He said nothing in this first trailer bill hurts the intent of the landmark legislation.

However, Gatewood said, there is a danger that the reforms could be clawed back over time with subsequent trailer bills. He said that’s why he and other advocates will be keeping a close eye and demanding to be at the table when those negotiations happen.

Slaughter, for his part, said he knows there are things in the trailer bill that won’t be popular with advocates who pushed for- and celebrated the January legislation. But he believes they were able to address some specific concerns without threatening the substance of the legislation.

“We were real intentional about not changing the spirit, or the objective, of our provisions in the SAFE-T Act,” Slaughter said. “But what we wanted to do was address … any language in the bill that was either ambiguous or difficult for law enforcement to implement.”

In response to criticism of the latest bill he sponsored, Slaughter insisted there were “no winners or losers” when it came to the legislation. He said he would be “staying at the table” to continue negotiating over the legislation’s finer points.

Tarver is worried those ongoing negotiations could mean undoing perhaps the biggest piece of the SAFE-T Act, the elimination of cash bail in Illinois.

“We passed this bill and less than five months later, we’re already gutting it,” Tarver said. “And so the abolition of cash bail was a huge issue for law enforcement. And now that law enforcement knows that all they have to do is sit around for five months with a handful of individuals … and get what they want. Yeah, I’m concerned.”

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