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Southern Illinoisans weigh in as Pritzker signs justice reform bill
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Southern Illinoisans weigh in as Pritzker signs justice reform bill

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CARBONDALE — As Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Monday signed into law a sweeping criminal justice reform bill, local legislators, city leaders and community organizers had mixed reactions.

The bill was introduced by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus last year after a summer of protests and public outcry against police violence that resulted in the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other people of color. The summer's protests put police and criminal justice reform in the spotlight nationwide, and Illinois’ crime bill passed both the House and Senate Jan. 13 during a lame duck session. Critics said the way the bill was finally passed, in the small hours of the morning Jan. 13 with little to no time for review or debate, was contrary to the spirit of democratic governance.

The new law ends the cash bail system, which is used to ensure a defendant comes to court. The law also requires every police officer in the state to be equipped with a body camera by 2025, requires every officer to be certified by the state, and establishes use-of-force regulations that ban chokeholds and restraints that inhibit breathing.

Debate over the sweeping legislation swirled in January, and there were few in Southern Illinois who came out in direct support. Local legislators and those in law enforcement argued that the elimination of cash bail especially would make Southern Illinois less safe.

Their tune hasn’t changed much in a month’s time.

“I do not support the actions taken by our Governor today to enact a law that will make it harder for police officers to do their jobs. I stand in support of my local law enforcement officers and agencies who have vocally opposed this legislation,” Sen. Dale Fowler, a Republican from Harrisburg who represents Illinois' 59th District, said in a Monday news release.

“I disagree strongly with Governor Pritzker’s irresponsible decision to move forward with signing this legislation, even though he knows there are major problems that exist in the law,” 118th District State Rep. Patrick Windhorst, R-Metropolis, said in a news release Monday.

“The changes contained in this massive law of sweeping criminal justice reforms is full of double definitions of important terms, ambiguous language, and provisions that will most certainly have a chilling effect on our ability to recruit and retain good police officers,” 117th District State Rep. Dave Severin, R-Benton, wrote in a statement Monday.

"Now that we've had the past few weeks to truly break down the hundreds of pages contained in this proposal, it has become evident this is a law that will protect criminals, threaten our law enforcement community and endanger public safety. It's shameful,” State Sen. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro, who represents the 58th District, said in a statement emailed to The Southern.

Newly-elected 115th District State Rep. Paul Jacobs, R-Pomona, also weighed in.

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“We’re in a ‘blame the police, reward the criminals’ political cycle in this state. I will be working with my colleagues in the House to amend this flawed bill so police can be confident they have the tools necessary to keep the public safe,” he said in a statement issued by his office Monday.

Also new to his office, Jackson County State’s Attorney Joseph Cervantez told The Southern Monday that he takes primary issue with the way the bill was passed. He said the bill was sold as a collaborative effort, but said all but two of the state’s attorneys in Illinois were left in the dark.

“When you ignore 100 state’s attorneys who are in the trenches, that’s not leadership, that’s politics,” Cervantez said.

Not all Southern Illinoisans saw Pritzker's signature on the bill as bad for public safety. Nancy Maxwell is the Carbondale Branch NAACP criminal justice chair. She said this is just the first step toward a more just justice system.

“I think it’s great and I think it’s the beginning,” Maxwell said.

“I do think that this reform bill is long overdue, and I see it being a step in the direction to make things more just and more equitable for all,” Carbondale Branch NAACP President Linda Flowers said Monday.

Flowers said eliminating cash bail will help balance the scales.

“Right now I think the books are stacked against poor people,” Flowers said. She said the elimination of cash bail makes great strides to correct income inequality in the criminal justice system. As it stood before the new law, Flowers said those with means were able to pay their way out of jail, while the poor were resigned to staying in jail until their court date.

While the elimination of cash bail has been given top billing in the debate over the new law, the requirement that all law enforcement officers in the state wear a body camera also made waves. An unfunded mandate, the requirement has some community leaders concerned for what this could mean for future budgets.

In Carbondale, a community that has had loud public debate about the size and cost of its police department, leaders have concerns about the cost of implementing such a big program. Carbondale City Manager Gary Williams said the administrative costs alone of cataloging, storing and processing information requests for the footage could be a big hurdle.

"The legislation does allow us to delay the implementation of this program until 2025 which gives us time to plan for these costs," Carbondale City Manager Gary Williams wrote in an email to The Southern Jan. 15.

Speaking with The Southern Monday, Williams said the city was about to begin budget discussions but did not think the city would immediately make any significant budget changes to prepare for the future expense of using and maintaining a body cam program.

Murphysboro Mayor Will Stephens said his city will review budgets as the law is implemented and make changes where they're needed.

“While some provisions of this bill are commendable, it is my opinion that this bill undermines the ability of communities to keep their residents safe,” Stephens wrote in a statement to The Southern. As to how this might impact future budget years, Stephens said that will be determined as the bill is rolled out.

“The city will review our budgets as the various parts of the bill are implemented, and make adjustments as needed,” he wrote.

isaac.smith@thesouthern.com

618-351-5823

On Twitter: @ismithreports

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