Illinois Democrats and equity activists reacted with anger a few days ago when state Senate Republicans unveiled a get-tough-on-crime package that would curl your toes.
The ire was understandable. In a blast from the past, GOP lawmakers proposed everything from imposing mandatory minimum sentences, such as life in prison for a second conviction of using an illegal gun in a robbery, to requiring prosecutors to explain in writing why they dropped gun charges. Also on tap: Undoing a new state law that effectively bans cash bail. Ah, to have the good old days of Class X prisons overflowing with felonious codgers, no?
But, if understandable, the ire was and is overdone. The road to a criminal justice system that truly works requires it to be not only fair, but credible. It has to offer both incentives and penalties. The progressive left may be losing sight of that, at great risk to its ultimate goals.
Here’s my thinking.
It’s now been many months, and sometimes years, since the deaths of Laquan McDonald, George Floyd and others prompted long overdue moves to rebalance the justice system. Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel signed a federal consent decree governing operations of the Chicago Police Department. Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle and the city’s current mayor, Lori Lightfoot, began to put some serious money into violence-prevention programs. The state enacted landmark legislation intended to restore trust between police and neighborhoods. Voters elected and re-elected a reformer as state’s attorney, Kim Foxx. Corporations started dedicating themselves to job creation in long-neglected neighborhoods.
Then COVID kicked down the door. Violent crime rates soared, with people trembling even in what were the safest of neighborhoods, and carjacking punks feeling free to threaten anyone. There may not be a firm connection among all of that. But people are scared, and some of them and their businesses are moving. That is a problem for reformers, in two different ways.
The first is strictly political. If current crime trends continue, the political right will have the weapon it wants to stampede voters to its side. I’m not sure when or how such a trend will manifest itself in actual votes. But that will happen, and Democratic pros know it.
The second problem is moral. No reform is perfect. It’s time to at least consider some mid-course corrections to what the progressive left has accomplished.
For instance: Though reformers were right to push for an end to cash bail to the extent that it was just a form of debtors prison for those accused of minor crimes, local judges have gone overboard in letting just about anyone out. According to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, of the 3,200 people free on electronic monitors in lieu of bail as of mid-August, 527 were charged with aggravated unlawful use of a weapon, 520 allegedly had a weapon despite a prior felony conviction, 267 faced charges of being an armed habitual criminal, and 98 had been arrested for murder.
Yes, m-u-r-d-e-r. Not exactly some kid busted for having a couple of joints, is it?
Or, carjacking. Among recent reforms was one making it harder to prosecute cases by making it easier for adults intending to steal a car to just hand a weapon to a juvenile, who will be tried in juvenile court rather than as an adult. Clearly, fear of prosecution has all but vanished, because the brazenness of some recent incidents is absolutely mind-boggling.
Example three: The continued sniping between Lightfoot and Foxx. There’s probably some truth to what each is saying. But the only message that emerges when the two verbally brawl is that nobody is in charge and anything goes.
If this state’s ruling Democrats are smart, they’ll recognize the problem and deal with it. Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch took an initial smart step on Sept. 29, when he formed a task force aimed at finding answers to the “dire emergency” of violent crime.
I hope the Dems get somewhere. If today’s lawmakers can’t come up with solutions, voters will look for other answers.