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State lawmakers, advocates discuss solutions to problematic sentencing policies

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - Illinois state lawmakers continue to discuss criminal justice reforms they would like to see passed during veto session this fall. On Tuesday, the Senate Criminal Law Committee, Special Committee on Public Safety, and House Judiciary-Criminal Law Committee focused on changes to sentencing practices.

Roughly 31,000 people are currently in Illinois prisons. However, lawmakers and advocates feel that figure could significantly drop with sentencing reform.

"People who have gone to prison can actually be quite successful in a probation-based program with services and programming that is targeted to the reasons they committed crime in the first place," said Kathy Saltmarsh, the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council Executive Director.

That's a message advocates hope lawmakers will consider as they start crafting proposals to reform the criminal justice system. Gov. JB Pritzker hopes the General Assembly eliminates cash bail and mandatory minimum sentences.

Legislators note Congress passed the First Step Act, a historic piece of criminal justice reform, in 2018.

"We are here in the state of Illinois saying we echo those sentiments and we want to take a look here at Illinois in regards to how we are dealing with sentencing reform," added Rep. Justin Slaughter (D-Chicago).

Protecting victims

The Illinois State's Attorneys Association supports criminal justice reforms. Still, members expressed concerns that victims could be in danger if offenders are let out early.

"Giving someone a second chance and the ability to get out of prison sooner, making habitual criminals able to get out on violent crimes that involve rape, murder, and people being shot is just something that does not help society," ISAA President Justin Hood said.

Meanwhile, the Illinois Public Defender Association believes the state should stop punishing based on the offense. Instead, they suggest a more focused approach toward rehabilitating offenders.

"We need to both reduce the number of people we send to prison and endeavor to foster true rehabilitation for those we do incarcerate. In this way, we need to try to break the cycle," IPDA President Keith Grant explained.

Another advocate said no evidence suggests that mandatory minimums enhance public safety. Phillip Whittington from the John Howard Association of Illinois noted the policies are costly for the state.

"The facts surrounding criminal offenses vary, and mandatory minimums are a one-size-fits-all approach that does not allow practitioners to adjust prison sentences in a way that accounts for this variance," Whittington said. "It sometimes leads to counterproductive, expensive, and unjust results."

Reforming Truth in Sentencing

Lawmakers could also address changes to Truth in Sentencing policy in November. The current system requires an individual to serve at least 85% of their sentence, which frequently leads to more time behind bars.

Saltmarsh explained about 45% of the state's prison population faces Truth in Sentencing restrictions. She said the majority of those serving time under this category are people of color.

"You can repeal it if you chose to. You could adjust the percentages down, as Sen. Sims has proposed, so that instead of serving 85 or 75%, you serve less," Saltmarsh added.

She also suggested lawmakers could create an opportunity for individuals to earn sentence credits. A similar mechanism already allows those serving 75% of their sentence to earn credits, dropping their time to 65%.

"No longer should the color of your skin affect the length of your sentence," Sen. Elgie Sims (D-Chicago) said. "We have to strike a balance between protecting the public and ensuring that bad actors receive sentences that fit the crime."

Sen. Robert Peters (D-Chicago) emphasized racist "tough on crime" policies have to come to an end. He hopes colleagues on both sides of the aisle will join the Black Caucus to get meaningful reforms passed.

"There is nothing prideful or righteous about clinging to failure," Peters said. "If we truly do want to win real safety and justice in our communities, then we must commit to real, tangible change."

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Mike Miletich

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