State: 3 important criminal-justice reforms from 2015

By Bryant Jackson-Green
Illinois Policy

2015 saw several much-needed updates to Illinois’ criminal-justice system that will help reduce corrections costs, protect public safety and make the state’s corrections system fairer for everyone. There’s still much to accomplish in 2016, especially with regard to removing barriers to work and employment for ex-offenders. But important legislative changes in 2015 have helped lay a foundation for further reform. Here are three of them.

1. Restricting juvenile transfer

Juveniles aren’t adults. But the eyes of the law all too often see them as such. House Bill 3718, signed into law by Gov. Bruce Rauner on Aug. 4, aims to change this.

HB 3718 stops automatic transfers to adult court for juveniles who are 15, and limits the transfer of juveniles ages 16 and 17 to cases involving only the most serious crimes. The Illinois General Assembly passed HB 3718 on June 29 after negotiations and compromises between reformers and law-enforcement representatives.

Establishing objective risk-assessment measures for individual offenders and allowing judges to tailor appropriate punishments accordingly should be top criminal-justice reform priorities. This is the best way to protect public safety while using public resources more efficiently. HB 3718 is one step toward this end.

2. Body-camera legislation

In the wake of police scandals in Chicago and across the state, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the city of Chicago to settle police-misconduct lawsuits, Illinois has seen a strong push to expand body-camera use among law enforcement officers throughout the state. On Aug. 12, Rauner signed legislation with bipartisan support which, among other things, establishing rules regarding the use of police body cameras throughout Illinois.

Under Public Act 99-0352, Illinois law now requires that if a law enforcement agency uses body cameras, the cameras “must be turned on at all times when the officer[s are] in uniform and [are] responding to calls for service or engaged in any law enforcement-related encounter[s] or activit[ies].” The law further provides that cameras should be turned off when police interview crime victims, witnesses or informants. Video of all recorded encounters must be maintained for 90 days, after which the recordings are to be deleted, unless they’re flagged for investigation or an encounter is subject to a formal complaint. In such cases, they’ll be kept for longer.

In addition to establishing rules for the use of body cameras, the new law also bans the use of chokeholds unless circumstances justify deadly force. And the law outlines procedures for handling deaths in which law-enforcement officers are involved.

3. Cook County “rocket docket” could help reduce spending on jails

On Aug. 21, Rauner signed Senate Bill 202, the Accelerated Resolution Court Act. The law creates a faster way for courts and jails to address the indigent accused, who often stay in jail instead of being released on bail simply because they don’t have enough money for a bail bond. The new law creates a “rocket docket” pilot program in Cook County to process certain property offenders within 30 days. If a case is not resolved within 30 days, the judge will release the accused on his or her own recognizance or under electronic monitoring. The judge could also impose other conditions such as drug treatment for the alleged offender.

To be eligible for the accelerated resolution court, the accused must be unable to afford bail and must only have been charged with either trespassing or retail theft of under $300. And a participant cannot have committed any violent crimes during the 10 years prior to his or her arrest.

This reform marks an improvement over the current system in which the average jail stay for retail theft cases that would qualify for the new accelerated program is 59 days, according to the Cook County sheriff’s office. A stay in the Cook County Department of Corrections costs about $143 per person per day. But it’s only a first step toward fairer treatment for indigent arrestees. An innocent person accused of trespassing or low-level retail theft who is too poor to afford bail could still stay in jail for up to a month.

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