It’s easy to talk about improving the criminal -justice system, but doing so is a whole other matter.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker has announced that he’s backing an ambitious criminal-justice reform package he wants the General Assembly to pass this year.
The public will just have to take his word on that, because he’s publicly embraced only generalities while leaving the specifics for later.
He did, however, identify three areas of interest.
He wants to end the cash bail system, by which individuals charged with a crime may — or may not — be required to post a specific sum of money to be released from custody.
The bond is intended to serve as an incentive for the defendant to return to court for subsequent hearings. After the case is completed, bond money is returned to the defendant or their family.
Pritzker also indicated that he wants to change what he calls “low-level drug-crime sentencing” and reduce mandatory minimum sentences.
Readers will have to leave it to the imagination as to what constitutes “low-level drug crimes.” Is he talking about smoking methamphetamine? Or selling it?
Mandatory minimum sentences are imposed for those crimes the Legislature has decided are not subject to probation and require a prison sentence that fits within the statutory range.
For examples, class X felonies — serious crimes like armed violence and aggravated criminal sexual assault — require the sentencing judge to impose a sentence that fits within a range of six to 30 years.
Pritzker said, specifically, that he’s not talking about lowering sentences for violent crimes. But just because some crimes are not violent does not mean they are not serious.
After all, residential burglary is not a violent crime, although it can become one. But those who commit one residential burglary after another are serious offenders.
Pritzker and Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton recently held a news conference to discuss their proposals. They stem from recommendations put forth by a task force headed by Stratton.
The task force’s goals suggest a broad and aggressive agenda, one that revisits some of the same social issues that have bedeviled society for decades.
“Justice reform is about striving to make equity and economic opportunity a reality for every community and every Illinoisan, because we simply cannot have justice without equity and opportunity,” Stratton said.
She is mixing apples and oranges — criminal justice, family collapse and poverty with economic opportunity. But it’s good to see Pritzker and Stratton embrace the concept of improving the state’s economy, because doing so would produce a rising tide that lifts all boats.
Illinois has a well-deserved reputation as a state with a business climate that is hostile to job creators. If this state is to provide more opportunities to its citizens, particularly those at the bottom of the economic ladder, it has to get serious about making the changes needed to make this state a place where businesses wish to locate and/or expand. Some people may not wish to acknowledge it, but without employers, there are no employees.
As a general proposition, Pritzker is suggesting that there are too many people in prison who ought not be there or ought to be serving shorter sentences. He’s also arguing that too many people arrested by police go through the criminal-justice system instead of being diverted into social programs that will put them on the right direction.
Indeed, the whole notion of eliminating cash bond is predicated on the idea that judges are setting bonds for defendants who deserved to be released on their own recognizance.
There may be merit to the general criticism. In a system as large as this state’s — covering 102 counties with 12.5 million people — there’s a lot of opportunity for prosecutors and judges to make judgments that are subject to challenge.
But the fact is that criminal defendants routinely are released on their own recognizance. Bond is required generally only for problematic defendants; the more serious the crime, the higher the bond.
At the same time, prosecutors routinely forego formal prosecutions of some defendants, funneling them into diversion programs that allow them to demonstrate that prosecution is not required. As for those sentenced to prison, it’s also routine for them to be repeat offenders who have already failed on their second and sometimes third chances.
The point is that the whole business is hideously complex and based on many different social factors and individual predispositions.
In that context, Pritzker is taking on tough issues that don’t lend themselves to easy or ideological solutions. Of course, he hasn’t yet identified what his proposed solutions are to these three areas of interest. When he does, they will require serious scrutiny by those with vast knowledge of all aspects of the issues.