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Crime survivors say parts of sweeping reform bill help reduce their trauma and allow them to ‘move on to the next stage in your life’

While much of the focus on the sweeping bill has involved law enforcement objections and responses from legislative sponsors, groups representing crime victims and their loved ones have largely been celebrating its passage.

Bertha Purnell
Bertha Purnell
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Bertha Purnell knows firsthand that when a trauma hits, “you might not be in the state of mind to say, ‘I have to do this, this, this and this.’”

Purnell’s youngest son, Maurice, was killed less than a mile from her home in the Austin neighborhood in 2017.

But his mother wasn’t immediately able to apply for get funds from the state’s victim compensation program to help her bury him because he was on parole at the time.

“Look at it like this: You’re at the worst point in your life, and now you’ve got to go borrow money from here, here and there to put your baby away,” Purnell said. “That’s a lot.”

A portion of a sweeping criminal justice reform bill recently passed aims to help those like Purnell and other survivors of crimes, by extending the amount of time they can seek resources from the state, as well as the amount of monetary support available. And it eliminates language that allows for a victim’s criminal history to be a determining factor in whether they or surviving relatives can receive compensation.

“If I had been able to access this with my son being on probation or parole, I wouldn’t have had to go to my family to borrow this, that and the other,” said Purnell, a mother of five.

While much of the focus on the sweeping crime bill has involved law enforcement objections and responses from legislative sponsors, groups representing crime victims and their loved ones have largely been celebrating the passage of the bill for what it offers them. They hope Gov. J.B. Pritzker will sign it into law.

Purnell, who founded the Mothers OnA Mission28 advocacy group, said the changes remove barriers and add things that “speak to things that are important to us as survivors.”

“This allows you time to kind of get yourself together, to get everything you need so you can help move on to the next stage in your life. … It kind of reduces the trauma,” she said. “It gives you a chance to kind of sit back and breathe and then get things together, whereas when you’re rushed it only adds to your trauma.”

Bertha Purnell
Bertha Purnell

The 764-page criminal justice bill passed the General Assembly in Janaury during the brief lame-duck session.

Along with ending cash bail by 2023 and requiring police officers to wear body cameras by 2025, the bill also amends the crime victim’s compensation act, expanding the definition of victim to include anyone living in the home of a person killed or injured, and amending the section on support for loss of future earnings to allow as much as $2,400 per month, up from $1,250 per month.

It also increases the amount awarded to help with funeral costs to $10,000, from $7,500, and extends the timeframe that a person can seek compensation from the state to within five years of the crime, up from two years.

Aswad Thomas, the managing director of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, said the changes to the victim compensation program, as well as other reforms, make it a “huge victory” for crime survivors.

The compensation program is the “primary source of support for crime victims,” thanks to dollars from the federal government allocated to states, Thomas said.

His professional basketball career ended in 2009 - three weeks before it was to begin - when he was shot as he left a convenience store in Hartford, Connecticut.

“Like many victims, I wasn’t made aware of victim compensation and the things it provides, like funding for counseling or therapy, physical therapy, relocation,” Thomas said. “Victim compensation is that primary support for survivors. … Many victims didn’t know about this until it was too late, so extending that time limit for victims from two years to five years is a significant change in the state because, as a survivor, your healing, your recovery, it takes years — it takes a lifetime.”

A coalition of the state’s law enforcement leadership opposes the bill, saying the “so-called ‘reforms’” in it “would destroy law enforcement’s ability to keep communities safe.”

Pritzker has not said whether he would sign it into law.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at a briefing in April.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at a briefing in April.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

Purnell hopes he will.

When Purnell thinks of her son — who was 28 and a father of four when he was killed — she misses “his voice, his laughter, his quirky dancing.” She says what hurts her most is that her grandchildren will never know their father. She says she’ll take the pain “if it can help the next person.”

Though the bill won’t provide that connection between her son and her grandkids, it can help others, she said.

“[I’d encourage Pritzker] to listen to the people that you serve, who put you in office,” Purnell said. “With this bill, lawmakers succeed at ensuring safety and justice were prioritized across many, many places here in Illinois. This bill will help the people that you serve more than you know.”