SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Senate Criminal Law Committee and Special Committee on Public Safety held the latest in a series of hearings related to the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus’ legislative agenda Tuesday, focusing on reclassifying offenses, drug penalty reform and elderly parole.
“We must confront the vast disparities in how individuals throughout the state are sentenced,” state Sen. Elgie Sims, a Chicago Democrat and chair of the Senate Criminal Law Committee, said. “We have to ensure that our justice system treats everyone fairly regardless of their race, religion and economic status. That often is not the case. These issues are important to achieve a more fair and equitable system.”
Witnesses testifying before the committee included Tanya Woods, executive director of the Westside Justice Center; Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz; White County State’s Attorney Denton Aud; Ben Ruddell, director of criminal justice policy for the Illinois ACLU; and representatives from Restore Justice Illinois.
Witnesses generally agreed that changes made to reduce penalties for crimes involving cannabis, along with the expungement of minor cannabis-related drug crimes following marijuana legalization last year, were positive steps forward.
Ruddell noted the war on drugs and drug crimes in general have harshly impacted Black Americans more than any other demographic.
“In 1980 our prison population was 11,768. Today it stands at more than 30,000. Despite a decades-long decline in the overall crime rate, data shows that increased drug arrests by the police and the enactment of punitive sentencing policies for drug offenses were major drivers in the spike in incarceration,” Ruddell said.
In 2018, Ruddell said, 60 percent of those arrested for a drug crime in Illinois were Black.
“While Black Illinoisans make up 14.5 percent of the state's population, they make up 54.8 of those in prison and are imprisoned at 8.8 times the rate of whites, one of the worst disparities of any state,” he said.
Isolated to drug crimes, the disparities are larger. Between 2016 and 2018, Black Illinoisans made up 69 percent of drug offenders admitted to the Illinois Department of Corrections, and 59 percent of strictly cannabis offenders.
Ruddell suggested three reforms to combat these disparities: reduction of all drug crimes by one class; reclassification of felony possession to a misdemeanor; and elimination of mandatory minimums and sentence enhancements. Lawmakers discussed the third point in a previous joint hearing.
Wendell Robinson, from Restore Justice Illinois, said as a juvenile he was sentenced to life in prison for violent crimes. Robinson served more than 25 years before being released in 2018 after a 2012 Supreme Court decision that made mandatory life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders unconstitutional.
Robinson cited a Justice Policy Institute study of 200 elderly prisoners in Maryland who were jailed as juveniles and released as result of a ruling by the Maryland Supreme Court. The median age of the individuals was 64 and they had served 34 years on average. Over a 6-year period upon release, the group had a 3 percent recidivism rate. That was far lower than the national average of 43 percent of those released from prison being incarcerated again,according to a 2011 Pew research study.
“A lot of guys that we are talking about that could potentially be parolees are people that are near and dear to me like friends. These are individuals that helped shape and mold the man that I became today,” Robinson said. “I know a lot of elderly guys [in prison] I still keep in communication with about these guys, they are like extremely positive individuals, but they just need a second chance.”
The hearing was the fifth prompted by Black Caucus’ push to promote its agenda, which is based on four pillars: Criminal justice reform, violence and police accountability; education and workforce development; economic access, equity and opportunity; and health care and human services.
The caucus plans to advance legislation to address each pillar during the upcoming veto session, which is scheduled for Nov. 17-19 and Dec. 1-3.
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