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QUESTION 1: These are several areas of criminal sentencing law that help fuel long-term incarceration. While the General Assembly debates these bills, the views of State’s Attorneys are always central to the discussion. That’s why we’d like to ask you for your opinion publicly since it carries so much weight with legislators. Please share your thoughts on each one of these.
Each elected State’s Attorney has the opportunity voice his or her opinion to the State’s Attorney Lobby Association. It is important for each State’s Attorney to do so in a transparent and public manner.
Mandatory gun enhancements: Judges must add 15 years to the sentence of someone who possesses but does not use a firearm in the commission of a crime. In 2015, a new law made these enhancements discretionary for juveniles, but not adults. HB4376 (Ford) would make those mandatory gun enhancements discretionary for all offenders. (Do you support, oppose, or are you neutral on the bill? Thoughts welcome.)
I support the bill. Having mandatory minimums on certain cases ties the hands of both Judges and prosecutors. If the goal in any case is to do justice, we must have the ability to do so without mandating a certain sentence. If the facts of the case justify the use of the enhancement in sentencing for the safety of the public, both the Judges and the prosecutors can then use it appropriately.
Felony-murder rule: Illinois has a broad felony-murder statute that allows prosecution of individuals for murder in cases where they did not commit or plan to commit a murder, but committed another forcible felony that resulted in someone’s death. HB1615 (Slaughter) and SB2292 (Peters) would narrow the scope of Illinois’s felony-murder law. (Do you support, oppose, or are you neutral on the bill? Thoughts welcome.)
I support this legislation. It is important that we prosecute individuals for the crimes that they commit. When a person chooses to participate in a felony, they need to be prosecuted for that offense. If an individual commits a felony with one or more participants, and one of those participants chooses to take someone’s life as a part of this, then the person committing the murder should be prosecuted for that murder. This bill makes it a requirement that the person committing the felony also had to know that the person would engage in that conduct for them to be charged with murder. Our laws are about holding a person accountable for their criminal behavior. This law would hold the person accountable for the choices he or she made but not prosecute him or her for the choices made by someone else and without the knowledge of what they would do.
Accountability: Illinois law utilizes a theory of accountability throughout its criminal statutes. This theory allows individuals to be convicted of the same, more serious crime as their co-defendant/s in an underlying felony, even if they did not directly perpetrate or plan to perpetrate the more serious crime. If convicted, people who are accountable serve the same sentence as the primary actor in the offense. (Do you think we should abolish accountability theory, narrow the usage of accountability theory, or keep accountability as is?)
I think that we should narrow the use of accountability in that we need to apply the statute based on their level of involvement or responsibility in the case. For example, if an individual commits an armed robbery, the ‘get away driver’, after the fact, can be charged with the same crime even if he never entered the location, never saw the victim and never held the weapon. The law holds each person equally responsible in cases like this. In reviewing these cases and if found to have minimal participation in the crime, these individuals should be treated differently in the criminal system. Again, the criminal justice system should hold individuals accountable for their actions.
Earned sentencing credits: A 1998 law called Truth in Sentencing reduced or removed the opportunity for incarcerated individuals to earn “time off for good behavior.” The law has led to much longer actual “time served” in Illinois prisons and has removed incentives for rehabilitation. (Do you think we should restore earned sentencing credits to pre-1998 levels, restore some earned sentencing credits, or keep sentencing credits the same? General thoughts welcome.)
When someone is sentenced to prison, we need to stop the mentality of “locking someone up and throwing away the key”. For most offenders, they will one day leave prison and be able to enter society. While in prison, we should provide individuals with substance use and mental health treatment. We should also give them the opportunity to further their education and get vocational training. The hope is that, when they leave prison, they will have the tools necessary to get a job, find housing, and be productive. Incentivizing inmates to have good behavior and to use the time in custody in a productive way, increases the likelihood that they will participate in these programs and not engage in violent behavior. We must restore credits for good behavior and participation in these programs.
Mid-sentence parole review: Illinois has true “parole for release” for only a tiny fraction of the prison population (those of any age convicted before the abolition of parole for release in 1978, and those under age 21 convicted after June 2019, pursuant to Public Act 100-1182, the Youthful Offender Parole Law). The remainder of incarcerated people in Illinois do not have access to a parole review hearing at any point in their term of incarceration. What most call parole in Illinois is a post-incarceration period of Mandatory Supervised Release, which is added to a sentence and is not a path to be released earlier than the original sentence.(Should we restore parole as a system for early release broadly, or should we continue with no general parole where the incarcerated serve the entire sentence received no matter what circumstances may have changed?)
I believe that we should restore the early release possibility for inmates. While I understand the logic behind “truth in sentencing” laws, we must also remember that circumstance can change for incarcerated individuals. If we truly provide rehabilitative measures for inmates along with access to educational or vocational opportunities, then we should also give them the means to be released and become productive citizens. As I stated above, if there are no incentives while in prison to learn, then we are only housing these individuals while still expecting them to make better decisions when released. I also believe that this increases the inmates ability to take accountability for the crime committed by giving them the ability to learn from the decision. We must empower individuals to make better choices and not just punish them for the crime committed.
Abolishing life without parole sentences for all juveniles. Unlike the majority of states, current law in Illinois still allows for a juvenile to receive a life sentence without the possibility of parole, despite young people having unique ability to change. A 2019 law implemented mid-sentence parole review for most individuals convicted of serious offenses before they turned 21. HB5670 (Mayfield) would expand on that law to prohibit life without parole sentences for anyone under the age of 21 when their crime was committed. Juveniles could still serve life in prison if the Prisoner Review Board rejects their application for early release. (Do you support, oppose, or are you neutral on this bill? Thoughts welcome.)
I am in favor of this. Science shows that brains are still developing through the age of 23. We, as prosecutors, need to take into consideration the level of maturity of the offender. Treating an 18 year old who makes a decision to commit a crime in the same manner as a person who is 40 is not looking at the circumstances of each case.
QUESTION 2: Proactive commutations by the Governor. Our current state prison population of 36,000 remains stubbornly high, largely because Illinois abolished mid-sentence parole review in 1978; people who otherwise might have been released from prison due to rehabilitation no longer have that option. The State Constitution gives the Governor authority to commute any sentence and release any person. Today, commutation is a reactive process. An incarcerated individual must submit a petition for review to the Governor, who tasks the Prisoner Review Board with creating a private recommendation, which the Governor may or may not act upon. Given the lack of mid-sentence parole review since 1978, do you think Governor Pritzker should make the reactive commutation system more proactive to systematically consider commutations? Potential groups to consider for proactive commutation include the elderly (over 65), those who have had excellent records while in prison, or those who have demonstrated remorse and have been rehabilitated but still face decades of incarceration. (Do you think Governor Pritzker should proactively review incarcerated individuals serving long sentences and assign them to the Prisoner Review Board to determine whether their sentences ought to be commuted given their unique circumstances? Do you think he should not do that? Thoughts welcome.)
I am in favor of this proactive review program. I think that it is incumbent on our elected officials to review laws and policies. I imagine there are hundreds of examples of prisoners who do not understand this process nor have the ability to petition for the commutation. If we take a proactive stance in reviewing the individuals that are in prison, we can set forth a fair and proactive means of reviewing our criminal justice system. However, it is just as important that the victims of the crimes have a voice in this process as well. Victims may feel strongly that the imprisonment continue or may believe that the inmate has served his time.
QUESTION 3: General ideas and personal anecdotes. When you think about our criminal legal system in Illinois (from policing to prosecution to sentencing to incarceration to re-entry), what do you see as the biggest opportunities for improvements in the next two years? Please consider this an open-ended question to share any important anecdotes that inform your perspective or other ideas for reform or improvements that deserve more attention.
I have worked in the legal system for the last 18 years as a prosecutor, a legal aid attorney, a civil attorney, a family law attorney, and a criminal defense attorney. One of the best reasons to vote for me for State’s Attorney is that I have seen almost every aspect of our legal system from the perspective of the clients that I have seen. I have watched clients go through messy divorces where they were not acting like themselves due to the emotional turmoil. I have helped clients save their homes from eviction or foreclosure. I have sat with DV/SA victims in Order of Protection cases and helped give them a voice against the abuser. Importantly, I have also advocated for criminal defendants. I have seen them struggle with mental health or drug addiction issues. I have seen them accept responsibility for their actions while hoping for leniency. I have worked with prosecutors who were reasonable and prosecutors who refused to listen to mitigating information.
We need to change the way that we have been policing and the way that we have prosecuted cases. First, we must always look to rehabilitation over incarceration. Mass incarceration has not worked. Criminalizing individuals who commit crimes based on mental health issues or addiction issues perpetuates the problem. We must get to the root of the criminal behavior. Diversion programs that allow people to take accountability for their crime while getting treatment and/or performing community service with the result of not having a conviction entered needs to the RULE in State’s Attorney’s Offices.
Second, we need to change the way that we review cases to charge. When elected, I will create a screening division of experienced prosecutors to review all felony cases. These prosecutors will not be given the name, race, or gender of the individual until charges are approved or denied. This removes the possibility of implicit bias in charging decisions. These same prosecutors will attend bond call. We must continue with bail reform measures. When asking for bail and bail conditions, the prosecutor must do so with the safety of the community in mind along with ensuring that the defendant will come back to court. However, these prosecutors also need to be aware of the financial abilities of each defendant in posting bail. We do not want to incarcerate an individual solely because they cannot afford to post bond.
Third, I will create a Community Prosecution Unit. This Unit will work with the community and police to provide communication, transparency, and accountability. A prosecutor will be assigned to each city, town or village in our County – preferably a prosecutor living within that community. The prosecutor will attend meetings, provide presentations and be the liaison for the police department. We will discuss the purpose of the prosecutor, how a prosecutor seeks justice, and the cases that we see. We can then institute community-focused crime strategies particular to that community and their needs. We would be responsive to community issues such as target crimes and issues with policing. A prosecutor’s role is often reactive – a person is arrested, and we prosecute the case. This program allows us to be proactive and visible in the community. We can listen and respond to the complaints of the community. We can advise on current criminal trends. We can communicate about case decisions. We would invite participation from the community in conjunction with the police department to make our community safer.
Fourth, I will create a program similar to the LEADS program in Seattle, WA. This is a collaborative community program that identifies individuals at the time of arrest who have mental health or addiction issues. For the low-level, non-violent offenders, we refer them to treatment and not jail. Essentially, the individual agrees to participate in this program in exchange for not entering the criminal justice system. In an independent peer review of the program for recidivism, the people in the LEAD program were 58% less likely than those in a control group to commit another crime. These statistics alone show that a significant impact can be made on our criminal justice system by diverting these individuals into treatment. Our focus can then be on the prosecution of violent crimes.
We cannot continue to police and prosecute as we have been. We must look for changes that focus on rehabilitation and providing the tools to be a productive person in our society. We ask offenders to accept responsibility for their crimes, to accept the punishment for that crime, but we fail to provide a different path for them to go down. We then imprison people for multiple offenses instead of asking how we failed them. Safety is the goal for every State’s Attorney. By changing the way we prosecute and policing techniques, by being a transparent presence in our community, we will see a decrease in crimes committed as a result of mental health or drug addiction issues. Our police can then focus on the investigation of violent crimes and the protection of our community. Our prosecutors can focus on doing justice in each and every case.
QUESTION 4: Voting rights while incarcerated. Should people who are incarcerated in prison be allowed to vote? Those in county jails (before they are sentenced) are allowed to vote. Vermont and Maine allow those serving a sentence in state prison to vote.
I think that every person should have the right to vote. I do not think that people that are incarcerated in jail or prison should be prohibited from voting. I also believe that individuals with criminal records should be allowed to vote.
QUESTION 5: There is an ongoing debate over whether the General Assembly has the constitutional authority to pass a law reducing criminal sentences for people already incarcerated. Those who say it’s unconstitutional believe the only two methods to modify sentences are through executive clemency, or a legal procedure called revestment, wherein the prosecution and defense agree to bring the case back before a judge. On the other hand, some argue while those are two legitimate avenues to modify existing sentences, they are not the exclusive avenues, and if the General Assembly wishes to pass a law that reduces existing sentences, the General Assembly is not constitutionally precluded from doing so. In other words, revestment is a path toward modifying existing sentences and it doesn’t preclude legislative action. Please share your opinion on whether the General Assembly has the constitutional authority to pass criminal sentencing changes that affect the currently incarcerated. (This question is particularly relevant to State’s Attorneys, as the leaders of the community of State’s Attorneys have aggressively taken the position that any bill the General Assembly considers that would potentially reduce sentences for currently incarcerated people is unconstitutional.)
The strongest part of our government is the ability to commit to change when something is wrong. In 2020, our general assembly decriminalized the possession of misdemeanor amounts of marijuana. They also enacted legislation that allowed individuals who received supervision or convictions for marijuana possession cases to have that expunged from their records. We have elected lawmakers and a governor to create our laws. I believe that our general assembly with the approval of the Governor would allow for the passing of laws that change existing sentences. These laws need to specifically state that it is retroactive in its application.