The Illinois General Assembly passed a historic package of criminal justice reforms on Jan. 13 that includes the Pretrial Fairness Act to end cash bail, measures curtailing the use of no-knock warrants by law enforcement officers, and an all-out ban on police chokeholds. The deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and the uprisings and racial reckoning that followed over the summer are essential parts of the story of how we achieved these monumental reforms.
But the movement towards justice has been ongoing for years.
Five years ago, organizations and coalitions of activists united to elect Kim Foxx as Cook County State’s Attorney. That push represented an effort to undo the damage done by decades of prosecutorial overreach and racism that disproportionately put Black people behind bars and perpetually entangled their lives, and the lives of their families and communities, in the system of mass incarceration.
These same coalitions that worked to elect Foxx began working on legislative criminal justice reform. Our grassroots coalition grew across the entire state, from Rockford to the Metro East, to Sangamon County and McLean County; it included clergy, public policy experts, and formerly incarcerated people, as well as a host of local elected officials.
In 2017, then-State Rep. Christian Mitchell introduced the Equal Justice for All Act, a precursor to the Pretrial Fairness Act that tried to end money bond but failed to become a law. State Sen. Elgie Sims also introduced the Bail Reform Act that year, which passed and helped set pre-trial practices throughout the state.
What has ensued since then—after the events of this past summer, and even after the events of earlier this year with the insurrection at the Capitol—is a game I call “Fear-Mongering Bingo.” The game is played by conservatives and law enforcement who use poor excuses to defend what is ultimately a racist refusal to reform the system.
They use Willie Horton-style scare tactics.
They deign to tell us what is best for our communities—for Black and brown communities that they don’t belong to, and where they otherwise enforce modern-day Jim Crow laws that keep us segregated and lacking the same level of resources and opportunity.
They pretend that their communities are so different from ours.
In reality, crime happens everywhere, and we are fighting for real safety and justice in every corner of our state.
In reality, the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence called this package of reforms “an example of how criminal justice reform can happen while supporting survivor safety.”
In reality, we are the experts in our communities. We know that real safety and justice is ensuring every community has good schools, good jobs, a roof over our heads, clean air to breathe, and quality healthcare.
Every community deserves these investments.
If Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs our criminal justice reform bill into law, it will take two years to implement our reforms fully. During that time, it’s our responsibility to make sure nothing falls through the cracks and prevent those dedicated to incarceration from reversing the progress we’ve made.
We must also look ahead to new organizing opportunities. This bill could not tackle qualified immunity, which protects police officers who’ve committed crimes from being held personally liable.
There’s much more to do, and we will continue the fight.
State Sen. Robert Peters
Sen. Robert Peters (D-Chicago) is the Illinois Senate Black Caucus Chair. Peters, a South Side resident, has represented Illinois’ 13th senate district since 2019 and has a background in community organizing. Follow him on Twitter @RobertJPeters.