Gov. J.B. Pritzker has set his eyes on remaking of what he views as an unfair and abusive criminal-justice system.
For good or ill, Illinois’ criminal-justice system is almost certain to get a major and expensive facelift over the next year or two.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker recently laid out a substantial proposal that addresses what he calls “seven guiding principles” sure to be embraced by his supermajorities in the House and Senate.
Although Pritzker’s proposal pays lip service to public safety, it’s clear that his principles were developed with the idea that lawbreakers are driven to criminal conduct by their life circumstances and mistreated on a widespread basis by the criminal-justice system.
In that context, it’s no surprise that the law-enforcement community reacted with alarm to Pritzker’s offerings. Authorities complained they were denied the opportunity to participate in the proposal’s development and that the governor is addressing Chicago’s problems as if they are statewide.
The Pritzker proposals stand in sharp contrast to past get-tough approaches on criminal justice. Indeed, it seems to reverse that approach, taking it much easier on lawbreakers while getting tough on law enforcement.
Pritzker’s proposals would end the cash bail system that requires many defendants to post a specific sum of money to be released from jail. Bond is set to encourage defendants to return to court. But Pritzker wants most defendants summarily released with only those posing an obvious public-safety risk kept in custody.
Critics described the governor’s plan as implementing a “revolving door” of arrests and releases.
He also proposed greater leniency in theft and drug cases, embracing a “public health approach” for mental health and addiction issues.
He suggests creating more rehabilitation programs that will allow inmates serving long sentences to be released sooner and providing housing and health care to released inmates to reduce recidivism.
As part of a crackdown on police misconduct, Pritzker has proposed statewide standards for officers that include licensing, updated standards for use of force by police and the decriminalization of what he calls “minor, nonviolent offenses.”
The American Civil Liberties Union was euphoric in its response to the governor’s proposals, saying they will help eliminate “the corrosive racial bias that has caused so much harm.”
“Our criminal legal system must be re-oriented to focus on rehabilitation and return to community, rather than lengthy sentences that do not serve communities or make our state safer,” the ACLU said.
The problem, of course, is that it’s easier to speak favorably of rehabilitation than to actually change the attitudes and behavior of those who constitute the criminal element.
As a practical matter, it would be dangerous to leap to many conclusions about the legislative changes the governor has in mind. While his intentions are obvious, not much else is.
Everyone will know more once legislators begin to turn the gleams in Pritzker’s eye into reality. One thing, however, is for certain: The governor is embarking on a groundbreaking campaign — call it the social workerization of the criminal-justice system. Success depends on troubled, sometimes dangerous, individuals making dramatically positive changes in their approach to life.
That’s always been the challenge facing the criminal-justice system, and at least to this point, it has always been extremely difficult to overcome.