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Thursday, April 4, 2019 12:15 am

A new era

Almost exactly one year ago, I attended a hearing of the House Judiciary criminal law committee and watched as the Democratic majority killed one Republican-sponsored penalty enhancement bill after another.

One would’ve made recruiting street gang members a Class 4 felony instead of the current Class 3. A bill to prevent child sex offenders from moving within a mile of their victims went down. The Democrats even killed a bill to enhance criminal penalties for anyone who knowingly harmed a police dog.

The legislative massacre was staged after Rep. Tony McCombie (R-Savanna) rose on the House floor to complain that she couldn’t get a hearing for one of her bills because the Democrats had bottled it up in subcommittee along with other Republican-backed penalty enhancement proposals. 

McCombie’s measure would’ve enhanced the criminal penalty for assaulting DCFS workers to bring it into line with the already enhanced penalty for knowingly assaulting police, firefighters, corrections workers and some Department of Human Service workers.

It seemed like a no-brainer bill, especially since one of McCombie’s DCFS worker constituents was literally beaten to death while attempting to take a child into protective custody. In years past, that AFSCME-backed bill would’ve sailed through the General Assembly and been signed into law.

Judiciary-Criminal has for years been a bulwark against penalty enhancement bills. The Black Caucus and former committee chair Rep. Elaine Nekritz derailed most of them by sending them to subcommittee to quietly die.

Lawmakers slowly increased the penalties on countless crimes over the decades. And their pace increased after Illinois passed a so-called “Truth in Sentencing” law in the 1990s, which drastically limited the amount of time that inmates could earn to reduce their sentences while in prison.

Eventually, people started waking up and realizing the very real damage this was doing. It wasn’t just expensive to pay for prisons; the laws were contributing to the cycle of crime and violence and were locking up a whole lot of people of color. Republicans actually took the lead on criminal justice reform in other states and former Gov. Bruce Rauner signed quite a large number of reform bills during his term in office.

But reforming existing laws was only part of the process. Preventing the passage of “press release” bills to enhance penalties after high-profile crimes was also important.

Rep. Justin Slaughter (D-Chicago) now chairs the Judiciary-Criminal committee. He has taken a different approach, and four penalty enhancement bills have been approved this year.

After her stinging defeat last year, McCombie started working her bill hard and even managed to get herself appointed to Judiciary-Criminal. She refiled her bill and added enhanced penalties for knowingly physically attacking adult protective service employees at the Illinois Department on Aging.

Last week, Judiciary-Criminal unanimously approved McCombie’s new bill. Rep. Art Turner (D-Chicago) even co-sponsored the bill this time, as did Chairman Slaughter. Slaughter told me he’s willing to consider “sensible” penalty enhancement bills like McCombie’s.

“We decided this year to consider, respectfully, those penalty enhancements that were sensible that didn’t have anything to do with some of the ‘Truth in Sentencing’ punitive policies,” Slaughter said.

And keep an eye on a new topic that is almost sure to surface. As I write this, 15 Illinois State Police troopers have been struck by motorists since the beginning of January. Two troopers have been killed.

The penalty for drivers who don’t move over or slow down for emergency vehicles is just a fine and possible loss of license. Somebody in the legislature will surely try to pass an enhancement bill, and this one will be tough to stop - and, frankly, shouldn’t be stopped if properly drafted.

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