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Signing Of Criminal Justice Bill Raises Implementation Concerns

State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria, says she wants to hear more from law enforcement officials as the process of implementing a criminal justice reform bill begins.
Joe Deacon
State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria, says she wants to hear more from law enforcement officials as the process of implementing a criminal justice reform bill begins.

Gov. JB Pritkzer has signed a criminal justice reform bill spearheaded by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus. But questions linger among activists, lawmakers and law enforcement officials over the effects of the bill.

The law will take effect over the next few years. Police body camera requirements and the end of cash bail are two of the key changes set to take place.

“All Illinoisans will live in a safer and more just state with this law on the books,” said Pritzker. “This legislation marks a substantial step toward dismantling the systemic racism that plagues our communities, our state and our nation, and brings us closer to true safety, true fairness and true justice.”

Olivia Butts, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Bloomington-Normal, said she’s excited to see those changes. She said the end of cash bail has been a priority for the BLM collective for multiple years.

Butts said advocates for the bill will spend the next few years explaining what the bill does.

"We've got a little bit of time to kind of do those educational pieces, let people know what this is all about,” said Butts. “I think that that's what we'll really see here locally, between now and when it's actually implemented in 2023."

Effects on policing

However, some Tri-County law enforcement officials believe the newly enacted measures will have some adverse effects on policing.

Peoria County Sheriff Brian Asbell fears language in the bill diminishes officers' ability to perform their duties and will make communities less safe.

“I'm not saying the sky is falling,” said Asbell. “I’ve said this, and I'll still continue to say this: 70% of this bill is needed, it's necessary, (and) it's long overdue. It's just the 30% will overshadow all the good.”

Tazewell County Sheriff Jeff Lower said for now his immediate responsibility is figuring out how to train deputies on how to adhere to the new requirements.

“At this point, the concerns and the talk over it doesn't really matter. Once the governor signs it into law, it's law enforcement obligation to follow it,” said Lower. “So that's kind of my focus now. I have a lot of concerns; I have a lot of worries about how we're going to implement all of this in such a short period of time, because this is typically not how things are done.”

While many provisions of the bill take effect July 1, others such as the elimination of cash bail and a police body camera mandate have a few years before they are implemented.

Asbell said he’s worried that some of the new guidelines related to the use of force may make officers hesitant to act in some situations, adding many law enforcement agencies may start having difficulty recruiting and retaining new officers.

“We don't have an applicant pool, and this was prior to the health pandemic,” he said. “You’ve started to see diminished numbers of individuals interested in this profession. It's been highlighted this last year, even before this legislation, with COVID-19 and social unrest. But you're just not getting the applicants that you once did, and it's to a level where it's dangerous.”

Lower said agencies are going to have to basically develop new plans for how they operate, and do so with little guidance.

“We’re going to have to redefine custodial arrests and the procedure. We've not been given anything – no procedures as far as, ‘How do we do this? How do we get this person in front of the judge?’ It's a total rework of our daily business and we've not been given any direction. We've just been given this bill and told, ‘This is what we're going to do.’”

Asbell said he had urged lawmakers not to push the legislation through too rapidly and risk triggering a range of unintended consequences.

“We knew this day would come. However, I was optimistic that there was going to be some trailer bills at least introduced prior to the governor’s signing,” he said. “Now, I'm fearful that some of these outcomes that we had talked about and that we've described will now become reality.”

Asbell said among bigger issues is the bill contains some ambiguous language and some other portions that are contradictory or conflict with existing laws.

“It’s a complicated mess. I truly hope I'm wrong; I'm an advocate of reform,” he said. “But there are just pieces here that I'm fairly confident have predictable outcomes that will come true.”

Making communities safer

State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria, said she wants to hear more from law enforcement officials and will not prejudge their concerns. But she said spreading misinformation about what the new law does and does not do serves no one’s benefit.

“There's this narrative that we're making communities less safe because of this bill. That's absolutely false,” said Gordon-Booth. “And I think it's because the reality of it is that people don't like change. I think we have to be honest with ourselves is that people demanded change.

“We saw that all summer, we saw that all fall, and as a leader, you have to be prepared to respond to the calls of the community. I am proud of the policy that we passed.”

Gordon-Booth said the criminal justice reform measures are not meant to attack how police officers do their jobs, but rather make reasonable improvements.

“The idea wasn't for this to be a ‘gotcha’ kind of thing where we want to jam officers up,” she said. “That is absolutely not the intention of the policy, to put officers in a position where they feel like they can't make split-second decisions in a critical crisis. That is absolutely not what people are looking for. If you look at communities that are most harmed, people that live in these communities want officers to be able to respond in crisis situations.

“But what the same folks are also looking for when needed, what they also need as well is they need to begin to rebuild trust; we need to rebuild a relationship. The more trust, the more relationship that there is between officer and community, the more we're going to be solving crimes that we should be solving, the more cooperation that you'll be able to see within the community.”

Khadine Bennett, the advocacy and intergovernmental affairs director for ACLU Illinois, said the bill is an important step in changing the system. She said the implementation of the bill will give law enforcement a chance to try something different with the communities they serve.

“It is possible to support law enforcement and to support accountability,” said Bennett. “Those things don't have to be mutually exclusive.”

She said policies in the bill, such as the Law Enforcement Misconduct Act, allow room for error.

“We're not talking about officers who make mistakes, like you know, ‘I forgot my body cam was low on batteries, and I didn't realize it and it went off,’” said Bennett. “We're talking about officers who knowingly and intentionally violate laws and policies.”

Bennett criticized the “disappointing” rhetoric from groups such as the Illinois Sheriff’s Association. She said the underlying discussions about criminal justice issues have been ongoing in the General Assembly for years.

“That fear mongering is the reason we're in this place to begin with,” said Bennett. “That's why we have these super long criminal sentences for things where it doesn't actually make sense.”

She said she wants to see a greater focus on “what the (bill’s) language actually says.”

“There is no real proof that what we're asking for, and what's now in this law, is going to result in less safety for folks,” said Bennett. “Buying into the fear tactics, that isn't really helpful to anyone, it doesn't make any of us safe.”

She said the changes could be a net positive, if implemented well.

“At the end of the day, it's a win-win,” said Bennett. “It's a win-win for law enforcement's relationship with certain communities. It's a win-win for communities to feel safer, and that's, I think, what we want for Illinois."

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.
Christine Hatfield, a graduate student in University of Illinois Springfield's Public Affairs Reporting program, is WGLT and WCBU's PAR intern for the first half of 2021.
Christine Hatfield
Christine Hatfield, a graduate student in University of Illinois Springfield's Public Affairs Reporting program, is WGLT and WCBU's PAR intern for the first half of 2021.