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Hasty police and justice ‘reforms’ in Illinois undermine public safety

This soon-to-be law weakens the ability to fight crime and protect the public. It is a recipe for further carnage.

The Illinois State Capitol
AP Photos

The package of police and justice reforms rushed through by the Illinois General Assembly and set to be signed by Gov J.B. Pritzker are nothing more than a solution in search of a problem.

The nearly 800-page behemoth of a bill misses the point of what effective law enforcement and justice improvements should and realistically can do to both protect public safety, professionalize law enforcement and deliver fair and impartial justice to offenders and for victims.

Indeed, law enforcement and the justice system in Illinois are far from perfect but this soon-to-be law weakens the ability to fight crime and protect the public. It is a recipe for further carnage.

Last year, the Windy City saw homicides jump by 55% to 769 killings for the whole of last year while shootings went up 52%, and car-jackings doubled.

While the largest city in the Land of Lincoln, Chicago, is beset by violence, lawmakers in Springfield risk exacerbating the problem by demoralizing and hindering police, releasing violent offenders and emboldening offenders by gutting consequences for crime.

Meanwhile, the bill puts police officers on the defensive by allowing officers to be “decertified” or fired and banned from policing for more and vaguer offenses and under a process that their union representatives had no say in. This amounts to giving law enforcement less protections than the state’s DMV employees or teachers — who cannot be fired even for egregious misconduct without adhering to a lengthy, byzantine process.

Other provisions demonstrate that the authors never bothered to consult with experts or law enforcement. For example, the bill bans chokeholds, which have been banned in Illinois since 2015. Elsewhere, the bill prohibits “military gear” acquisition by police agencies including “tracked vehicles” (i.e. tanks), grenade launchers, bayonets, and weaponized aircraft. Springfield must be watching too many movies — no police force is mounting bayonets, launching grenades, or flying attack helicopters.

This is fantasy — no police agency in Illinois received anything like those items from the Pentagon in the last decade. (The so-called “bayonets” are, in fact, utility knives which anyone who served in the military would recognize.)

Lawmakers are also seemingly ignorant of how law enforcement agencies have already adapted to mental health crises. Mental health protocols and training for officers is widespread already — and legally mandated as of January 2020. Now, it is becoming common practice for “crisis response teams” that include officers (who now train for these situations) to pair with mental health professionals and other experts to defuse situations and get the subject care and services. Piling on reporting requirements and new mandates only makes it more difficult to implement effective strategies and adapt to changing needs.

The legislation also empowers criminals further by gutting important “truth in sentencing” and fair punishment laws. The bill gives judges almost complete discretion to ignore minimum sentencing rules and expedites the release of dangerous prisoners. It also gives suspects three free phone calls before the police even begin to question a suspect, who already received their Miranda rights.

The worst provision is to eliminate cash bail. It is both foolhardy and downright dangerous. Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans’ 2017 order effectively eliminated cash bail along the same lines as the state package. Independent analyses have shown that it was an utter failure. Evans even acknowledged his own report touting its success was flawed. An investigation by the Chicago Tribune showed that re-offense, especially violent crimes, was four times the rate Evans claimed over the 15-month study period. There were 18 more offenders released or no bond who went on to commit murders.

An academic analysis by the University of Utah showed that the changes increased the number of new crimes by releasees by 45% and violent crimes by one third. Spousal abusers also increasingly escaped justice according to the authors, “a substantial number of aggravated domestic violence prosecutions prosecutors dropped after the changes, presumably because batterers were able to more frequently obtain release and intimidate their victims into not pursuing charges.”

Without bond requirements and a higher bar for holding a suspect, most dangerous violent offenders will walk free within hours of their arrest. Just look at New York state’s continued calamity of repeat offenders being released to victimize the public again and again.

And the public — especially communities hard-hit by violence and crime — want more police, not less. Residents of impoverished and often dangerous urban areas overwhelmingly want more (53%) or the same (41%) police presence in their communities according to a poll conducted this summer by Gallup for the Center for Advancing Opportunity after the George Floyd incident. A similar Gallup poll found a staggering 68% of residents in Chicago’s South Side wanted the police to spend more time in their neighborhood — only 5% wanted the police around less.

And crime is costly. According to a recent survey, the average Chicagoan faced a crime tax of $3,136 in 2019 or $8.5 billion citywide, 75% of the city’s 2020 budget. And that price tag is sure to climb by billions in 2020 due to this year’s violence.

Surely, that’s not in the interest of justice or public safety.

Jason Johnson is the president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund.

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