Editorial: Springfield’s secret to criminal justice reform — compromise

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People who work with troubled kids will tell you that it does no good to put a child as young as 10 in a county detention facility.

Talk about setting the kid up for even more trouble.

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But the police will tell you something else: they don’t always have a choice. Taking a child out of his home and putting him in a detention facility is sometimes, unfortunately, the only way they can protect the child from a dangerous family fight that’s about to explode.

Those two conflicting truths were at the heart of negotiations in the Illinois Legislature this spring on a law establishing when and why a child can be put in county detention. Both sides compromised and produced a bill that, while not perfect, is a good step forward in helping and protecting children.

Equally important, passage of the bill — and almost a dozen other reforms in the areas of criminal and juvenile justice — serve to remind us of how bipartisan progress is still best made in Springfield: Eschew rigid ideology, compromise, and don’t trash your opponent.

Among the other measures approved by the Legislature and headed to Gov. Bruce Rauner’s desk are a bill that gives juvenile court judges more say in whether teenage offenders serve their time in an adult prison or juvenile prison, a bill that eliminates mandatory life-without-parole sentences for youth under 18 at the time of the offense, a bill that makes possession of 15 grams of marijuana (about 30 joints) punishable by a fine of up to $125, and a bill that limits the length of out-of-school expulsions.

Also approved with bipartisan support were a bill that allows job-seeking people with misdemeanor criminal records to petition the court to have those records sealed at an earlier date, a bill that removes a number of nonviolent offenses from being a permanent bar to employment in schools, and a bill that establishes guidelines for the use of body cameras for police and requires an independent investigation of officer-involved deaths.

None of these legislative successes was a slam-dunk. All of these bills were Democratic initiatives that required substantial compromise, guided by the bills’ sponsors, before Republicans would sign on.

The child detention bill, for example, which was sponsored by Rep. Robyn Gabel, D-Evanston, and Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, originally would have raised the minimum age a child could be held in a county detention facility to 13 from 10.

But to get votes on the bill, Gabel and Steans revised it to allow the police to still place a child as young as 10 in a detention center pending a court appearance, but only after they first checked with a local social service provider who might be able to find a foster home or group home for the child. Such alternatives to county detention often are available, but the police routinely fail to seek them out. This bill would require that they do so.

Similarly, Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, introduced a proposal to end the automatic transfer of minors as young as 13 to adult court, no matter what the child’s offense. Nekritz’ original bill would have required that a juvenile court judge rule in every instance whether the defendant should be tried in adult or juvenile court.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle pushed hard for the bill, but state’s attorneys from Cook, Kankakee and Sangamon counties testified against it.

The final bill, sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, strikes a compromise. It does not eliminate all automatic transfers to adult court — still allowing them for the most serious crimes, such as murder and criminal sexual assault — but effectively reduces their number by 70 percent.

Compromise is the way of the world. No one side has it all figured it out. Not even in Springfield.

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