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A Massive Criminal Justice Reform Bill Is Now Law In Illinois. What Happens Next?

Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton testifies before a joint legislative committee hearing in Chicago, arguing that thousands of Illinoisans are held behind bars simply because they cannot afford their bail.
Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton testifies before a joint legislative committee hearing in Chicago, arguing that thousands of Illinoisans are held behind bars simply because they cannot afford their bail.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

The criminal justice reform bill signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker Monday is groundbreaking in its scope. It ends cash bail, expands detainee rights and requires body cameras on all police officers.

But the governor’s signature is also just the beginning of a transition that will take years, and there’s no guarantee that all of the changes promised in the massive bill will become reality as they were written.

July 1 is the earliest some measures will go into effect, including restrictions on use of deadly force, the ability for people to file anonymous complaints about officers and expanded training requirements.

Cash bail won’t be fully abolished until 2023, to be replaced by a pretrial release system that determines a detainee’s freedom based on the alleged crime, risk of flight and possible danger to the community. Smaller police departments will have until 2025 to get body cameras for all their officers.

In the meantime, police, defense attorneys, judges, prosecutors and an array of special interest groups are parsing out House Bill 3653’s more than 700 pages. Where its opponents see costly, hasty reform, others see opportunity.

The Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, the bill’s sponsor, will be pushing to implement as much as possible as quickly as possible. States attorneys, police groups and Republican lawmakers promised to challenge the law, possibly watering it down. Their arguments are likely to end up in the courts.

Stakeholders say they need all the time they can get to work with lawmakers to make changes — and figure out how to pay for them.

“We hope that if there are some points of questions throughout the bill, that they meet with the people who are in law enforcement and talk through it instead of turning their backs on us and saying, ‘Deal with it,’” said Madison County Sheriff John Lakin.

Even after hours of testimony, debate and revision prior to its passage, there is disagreement about what the law actually says.

Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Haine said the law contradicts itself in places. The portion about cash bail, for instance, says suspects must pose a threat to a specific person to be detained. Another section says says suspects can be held if they pose a threat to the community, Haine said.

“So which is it?” Haine asked.

The bill amended existing law to prevent police from using deadly force to prevent escape unless it’s necessary to prevent death or injury to an officer or someone else. Under exactly which circumstances would an officer be allowed to use deadly force?

Cathy MacElroy, chief public defender for St. Clair County, said she’s not sure how those rules are going to play out in real situations and in the courts.

But she believes new use-of-force rules will lead to “better interactions between police and people being arrested.” Like law enforcement, however, she worries about paying for the required changes. Opponents criticized the bill for not including enough financial support.

“The changes in the bill are fantastic, but I hope the state soon realizes that we need funding for these mandates,” MacElroy said.

Starting July 1, detainees will be allowed to make three phone calls within three hours of their arrest, and the local public defender’s number will be provided. MacElroy expects a “substantial increase on the volume of cases” her office sees based on that provision alone.

“I know in Chicago, in Cook County, they have public defenders who basically their entire job is just answering calls at night,” MacElroy said. “I don’t know how we’ll manage that downstate where we’re not funded as well.”

In Madison County, meantime, board members cut more than $550,000 from the sheriff’s budget as part of an overall cost reduction effort as local governments face shortfalls caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re going to have to start at the beginning and see where we’re at,” Lakin said.

The changes will have an immediate impact on accountability in policing from the bottom up, said Thomas Trice, president of Triken Transformational Training, a Belleville-based company that offers police training and consulting.

The law requires an officer to intervene if they see another using unauthorized force, even if it’s their superior. They must report the incident within five days, and the intervening officer can’t be retaliated against.

“It needs to start early because what happens is that once you get an officer into an agency and they get integrated with bad habits, those bad habits,” Trice said.

That goes all the way through the ranks, so if you’re not producing leaders at the very bottom of your organization, there can’t be an expectation to have leaders at the sergeants and lieutenant and captain level.”

While challenges and questions will last for years and months, St. Louis-based activist Tracy Stanton says community healing should be a priority for police departments. Stanton, a lead organizer with Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing, seeks to help low-income people avoid “cycles of poverty and crisis” through The Bail Project.

“Our communities are hurting,” Stanton said. “The people in our communities are hurting. Majority of the time, crime comes from trauma, poverty, things of that nature, so what do we need as a community to support people holistically? Social service providers, a pretrial office that actually wants to ensure people come back to court, not just so they can be charged, but just because this is what the person needs.”

Trice agrees the law is an opportunity for rebuilding trust.

“Leadership needs to reimagine a new law enforcement and how it operates within the context of their communities,” Trice said. “That whole reimagining concept is innovation, really, and moving into a 21st century of policing that can actually gain public trust and have that acceptance of power and that authority back because they know they’re going to be responsible with it.”

As the reform shakes out, police will still be doing their jobs, the Madison County sheriff said.

“We’re still going to answer the phone, respond to calls, patrol, do the things we’re doing right now,” Lakin said. “It may affect some of how that happens.”

DeAsia Page and Kelsey Landis are reporters with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.