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Columns

EYE ON ILLINOIS: Don’t overlook power of state’s attorneys to shape justice system

Six weeks after the executive branch detailed plans for overhauling the state’s juvenile justice program, legislators discussed sentencing laws and Illinois’ approach to restorative justice.

The occasion was a joint hearing of the Senate Criminal Law and Public Safety committees. Capitol News Illinois reports topics included truth-In-sentencing laws mandating violent offenders serve more of their sentence; mandatory minimums that restrict judicial discretion; three-strike enhancements to sentences so repeat offenders get increase prison time for minor crimes; and resentencing people whose infractions are later decriminalized.

Whereas the juvenile reform plan is deeply detailed — three phases over four years — the joint hearing was conceptual. No legislative proposals are on the table, but the big picture ideas are evident: reformers support alternatives to incarceration and offering sentence reductions to those willing to participate in new rehabilitation or counseling programs.

“We need to stop merely punishing the offense and commit to rehabilitating the defender,” said retired McClean County Judge Donald Bernardi.

Unsurprisingly, there was prosecutorial pushback.

While Illinois State’s Attorneys Association representatives agreed with speakers who discussed racial inequity in drug crime sentencing, they would prefer to retain mandatory minimums and truth-in-sentencing laws.

“What our concern is as prosecutors, is we are doing our jobs to protect the public from the wolves, not the sheep,” said Hamilton County State’s Attorney Justin Hood, association president.

This isn’t blanket criticism of the association. The prosecutors also keyed on points long obvious to reformers: the best way to reduce crime is addressing communities lacking in key areas like schools, housing, counseling and financial aid. They seemed on board with beefing up work release and work study programs that help the incarcerated make positive contributions and stay well-positioned for post-release life.

But ultimately hood’s comment is a useful reminder of prosecutors’ outsized influence on the entire justice system. They choose which charges to bring, if any, make bail recommendations and negotiate plea deals. State’s attorneys are accountable at the ballot box every four years, but mostly work outside the public’s courtrooms.

While those powers certainly are negotiable when ideas from Tuesday’s hearing germinate into policy proposals, voters in counties with contested state’s attorney races this fall have tremendous power right now. For some folks that means lining up behind whoever vows to be toughest on crime. For others it’s stumping for a candidate open to alternative sentencing, rehabilitation programs and strategies like courts with special focuses on drug offenses, mental health issues and veterans.

“If we truly do want to win real safety and justice in our communities,” said Sen. Robert Peters, D-Chicago, “then we must commit to real, tangible change.”

Sometimes that change is a law, sometimes it’s who wields power. The voters’ influence is always essential.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.

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