As a result of consistent and compelling lobbying by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, Governor J.B. Pritzker has the history-making task of signing a criminal justice reform bill into law that, among many changes, will:
- Eliminate the cash bail system statewide
- Mandate accurate reporting and accountability for all deaths in custody
- Require police officers to intervene when they see fellow officers using excessive force
- Deny re-hiring at any state police department for officers guilty of misconduct
- Require body cameras for every police department in the state
Storycatchers Theatre considers this criminal justice reform bill groundbreaking. It creates better accountability in the justice system while protecting those who have the most to lose when navigating the justice system – poor and marginalized communities.
Each pillar of this reform bill illustrates why we need individuals from historically oppressed communities in positions of power.
AN ORDER FOR INTERVENTION
Take, for example, the bill spelling out the requirement for police officers to intervene when they see a fellow officer – of any rank – using excessive force. For those with economic and racial privileges, this sounds like a redundant policy. Shouldn’t police officers always step in when they witness excessive force and aren’t the examples of excessive force a ‘few bad apples’?
The murder of George Floyd, the often-brutal response by police nationwide to the summer of 2020 uprisings, and the countless accounts from Black, brown, and queer communities of reckless police behavior prove otherwise; making the explicitness of this part of the bill almost revolutionary.
REFORMING THE CRIMINALIZATION OF POVERTY
The Pretrial Fairness Act in this new bill also stands in revolutionary light. It is one of the most abolitionist policies passed through the state House and Senate, and it will make Illinois the first state in the nation to completely end the use of cash bond. This means no one can be held in jail before trial simply because they can’t afford to pay a certain, sometimes arbitrary, amount of money.
For the young people in Storycatchers’ post-release program – Changing Voices – eliminating cash bond is another step towards stronger communities and accessible opportunities. “This will allow individuals to maintain or seek employment, maintain housing, and will keep children with their parents,” states Cristina Williams, Changing Voices Program Manager. “I know many of our youth are happy with the news.” Our Case Manager for Changing Voices, Daniel Stribling also noted, “we often see that young people do not need incarceration. They need support and opportunity.”
Our staff running programs at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC) often witness the ripple effect of cash bail requirements on youth people and their families. Cheri Coons, Program Manager of the Temporary Lockdown Ensemble at JTDC recounts one memorable example:
“Even with his charges dropped, M. missed out on so much of his life: finishing high school with his class, the birth of his son, and watching him grow. This was all because the family didn’t have the financial means to bail him out. Hopefully this new law means that other young people don’t have to lose so much of their young lives in the purgatory of detention.”
There is buzz around the bill’s costly requirements like body cameras and misconduct investigations, but we don’t see cost when looking at these measures, we just see absolute necessity. The summer of 2020 alone should be an indication of the urgent need for these reforms. Nationwide, families depend on body cameras as the only reliable witness to police misconduct. When we think of an equitable justice system, body cameras are a resource to level the playing field, especially for those struggling with the hearsay that takes place after an encounter with law enforcement.
A more robust process for misconduct investigations will also help communities who never quite feel like they’ve experienced “justice” after an incident with the police. It’s a chance to garner more trust. If we see real course correction as a result of these investigations and know that there will be consequences for those outrageous examples of excessive force, we’ll know that ‘law and order’ isn’t just a dog whistle for more punishments for Black and brown communities.
A COLLECTIVE VICTORY
Illinois’ criminal justice reform bill is a huge victory for the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, the Coalition to End Money Bond, the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice, Illinois Justice Project, other community organizations. It is also a chance to focus our collective imagination around what the justice system could do to serve and protect every citizen in Illinois. We’re looking forward to the next steps. Between this bill and the efforts to dissolve the juvenile justice system, the transformation is palpable.