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Criminal justice reform atop Pritzker’s 2020 plan

Action list includes ending cash bail, reducing minimum sentences

By Jerry Nowicki
Capitol News Illinois

SPRINGFIELD — In year two, Gov. J.B. Pritzker will focus on ending cash bail, reforming low-level drug crime sentencing and reducing mandatory minimum sentences, he announced in Chicago Thursday.

Pritzker and Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, both Democrats, laid out their plan at a news conference at Kennedy-King College. Stratton said real justice reform in Illinois will require more than just policing prisons.

“Justice reform is about striving to make equity and economic opportunity a reality for every community and every Illinoisan, because we simply cannot have justice without equity and opportunity,” Stratton said. 

Stratton spearheads the Justice, Equity and Opportunity Initiative, established by a Pritzker executive order last February to study the subject. She submitted a report to the governor this month outlining goals of the Initiative.

Those include addressing social determinants of crime and incarceration; improving equitable deflection and diversion opportunities from the justice system; improving conditions and addressing the needs of vulnerable populations in correctional facilities; and supporting positive re-entry outcomes to reduce recidivism.

The Thursday announcement comes as state’s attorneys throughout Illinois are initiating the process of expunging thousands of low-level stand-alone marijuana offenses in compliance with the state’s adult-use legalization law.

“Criminal justice reform is one of the major planks of our administration, something that we talked about for two years on the campaign trail and we’ve already made strides in our first year,” Pritzker said. “Going forward, we have a lot to do with criminal justice reform.”

He said top priorities include eliminating cash bail and reducing mandatory minimum sentences, “giving judges more discretion to take into account circumstances in each case.”

“Those two things will have, I think, a significant impact on incarceration, on reducing incarceration in jails and in prison,” he said. “We have a prison population of 40,000 in this state, we can reduce that and we can do it prudently.”

Pritzker didn’t give specifics on the mandatory minimum reforms or which minimums would be changed, but said “we’re looking at all the mandatory minimums.”

“It has to do with what kinds of crimes,” he said. “The more violent the crime, obviously, the more reticent we are to look at anything like that, but that’s all going to be examined by us and we’re going to move forward with the mission of reducing our prison population.” 

Pritzker said “pieces” of the legislative effort will be introduced this session, which begins in late January and is scheduled to conclude in May.

Stratton said “it’s going to take some time” to reform the criminal justice system, “but we do believe that over the next three years we can make some significant movement to getting us to the end point where we want to go.”

She said in 2019, members of the Justice, Equity and Opportunity Initiative participated in listening sessions with more than 500 stakeholders representing community organizations, advocacy groups, law enforcement, state agencies and legislators.

Members of the initiative heard from several people that remained incarcerated for low-level crimes because they were unable to come up with bail, Stratton said.

In April last year, members of a House committee discussed the idea of ending cash bail, which is supported by Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx.

But law enforcement officials and other prosecutors at the hearing warned such a move could have far-reaching consequences, including putting victims of domestic violence at risk and taking away the ability of local courts to fund services for crime victims.

“In our county, we take in roughly about a half million dollars in bond a year, and that money fuels our criminal justice system,” McDonough County Sheriff Nick Petitgout said at the April committee hearing. “Things like victims services, court appointed special advocates, teen court, diversion programs, the treasurer’s office, the circuit clerk’s office, the sheriff’s office. There are many, many different parts of this system that rely on that money.”

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