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Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs sweeping Illinois criminal justice overhaul including eliminating cash bail

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs sweeping Illinois criminal justice overhaul including eliminating cash bail

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Illinois-Criminal Justice Reform

Flanked by lawmakers and supporters, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs a sweeping criminal justice reform bill into law during a ceremony at Chicago State University on the South Side, Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. (Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Illinois Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Monday signed into law a sweeping overhaul of policing and criminal justice that eliminates the cash bail system, requires police agencies to equip officers with body cameras and strictly defines use-of-force rules for law enforcement.

The Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, which designed the massive measure, hailed it as a historic response to the deaths last year of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky. Opponents argue that it will hamstring police and discourage talented people from joining law enforcement.

“This bill protects police officers,” countered Pritzker, after signing the legislation at Chicago State University. He went on to add, “It also provides for funding for training for mental health services. It provides actually more for police officers, and doesn’t take away from them. I am actually very confident that this is going to make policing safer, and it is going to make the public safer.”

The governor called the bill “a transformative step forward in Illinois’ effort to lead the country in dismantling systemic racism.”

The law has the support of several of Illinois’ top law enforcement authorities, including Attorney General Kwame Raoul and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, both Democrats.

But major organizations representing police and prosecutors say they weren’t consulted on critical pieces. Among other things, they contend the use-of-force rules are too restrictive as to endanger officers; that dangerous people may be set free while awaiting trial; and that requiring body cameras for all departments by 2025 will be too costly.

The Illinois Law Enforcement Coalition, which includes police unions, the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police and the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association, issued a statement calling the new law “a blatant move to punish an entire, honorable profession that will end up hurting law-abiding citizens the most.”

“Because we are sworn to protect and serve the public, we sincerely hope that we will not be proven right about this new law, that it won’t cause police officers to leave the profession in droves and handcuff those who remain so they can’t stop crimes against people and property,” the coalition said.

Illinois Republican Party Chairman Don Tracy also was sharply critical. “The governor is willfully undermining public safety — endangering citizens, emboldening criminals, and making Illinois less safe for families,” he said.

Under the new law, cash bail would be eliminated in 2023. Washington, D.C., and the states of New York and New Jersey have undertaken similar efforts.

Critics of the cash bail system say it criminalizes poverty. Getting rid of it does not mean that everyone goes free while awaiting trial. Judges make that call based on the threat a defendant poses.

“What we’ve done is strengthen judicial discretion when it comes to determining whether someone is a threat to a person or community,” said Sen. Robert Peters, a Democrat from Chicago. “We focused this explicitly and narrowed it so money does not play a factor. Money does not determine whether someone’s a threat.”

The bill’s major sponsors, Sen. Elgie Sims and Rep. Justin Slaughter, both Chicago Democrats, have said they’re willing to work with police groups to tweak parts which might need improvement.

“You don’t switch on the switch and everything just happens,” Slaughter said Monday. “We are going to have to evolve, level-set with law enforcement, talk about these issues, talk about these challenges.”

Illinois Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford, a Maywood Democrat, said the wide-scale protests that followed George Floyd’s death after the coronavirus pandemic already had exposed many inequities in society were a call to action for Black lawmakers.

“The tragedies of this last year could have just left us beaten down and defeated. But we did not let it,” Lightford said. “We leveraged it to create real change, to create a better future for our children and grandchildren.”

Illinois is among 26 states that have passed more than 100 new laws dealing with law enforcement policy since May, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But it is the only state so far to eliminate financial conditions for releasing people from custody while they await trial.

Includes reporting by the Chicago Tribune via Tribune News Service.

Updated at 5:45 p.m.

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