About a year ago, I attended a hearing of the Illinois House Judiciary – Criminal Law Committee and watched the Democratic majority vote down one Republican-sponsored criminal-penalty-enhancement bill after another.
One would've made recruiting street gang members a Class 4 felony instead of the current Class 3. A bill to prevent child sex offenders from moving within a mile of their victims went down. The Democrats even killed a bill to enhance criminal penalties for anyone who knowingly harmed a police dog.
The legislative massacre was staged after Representative Tony McCombie (R-Savanna) rose on the House floor to complain that she couldn't get a hearing for one of her bills because the Democrats had bottled it up in subcommittee along with other Republican-backed penalty enhancement proposals.
McCombie's measure would've enhanced the criminal penalty for assaulting DCFS workers to bring it into line with the already enhanced penalty for knowingly assaulting police, firefighters, corrections workers, and some Department of Human Service workers.
It seemed like a no-brainer bill, especially since one of Representative McCombie's DCFS worker constituents was literally beaten to death while attempting to take a child into protective custody. In years past, that AFSCME-backed bill would've sailed through the General Assembly and been signed into law.
Judiciary-Criminal has for years been a bulwark against penalty enhancement bills. The Black Caucus and former committee chair Representative Elaine Nekritz derailed most of them by sending them to subcommittee to quietly die.
Lawmakers slowly increased the penalties on countless crimes over the decades. And their pace increased after Illinois passed a so-called "Truth in Sentencing" law in the 1990s, which drastically limited the amount of time that inmates could earn to reduce their sentences while in prison.
Eventually, people started waking up and realizing the very real damage this was doing. It wasn't just expensive to pay for prisons; the laws were contributing to the cycle of crime and violence and were locking up a whole lot of people of color. Republicans actually took the lead on criminal justice reform in other states and former Governor Bruce Rauner signed quite a large number of reform bills during his term in office.
But reforming existing laws was only part of the process. Preventing the passage of "press release" bills to enhance penalties after high-profile crimes was also important.
After Nekritz retired, Representative Art Turner, a member of House Democratic leadership, eventually took the panel's helm and the hammer came down even harder, culminating in that hearing last spring. Representative Turner (D-Chicago) is probably one of the nicest people you'll ever meet, but not when it comes to this topic.
House Speaker Michael Madigan decreed at the beginning of this year that members of his leadership team could no longer chair committees, so Turner was replaced by Representative Justin Slaughter (D-Chicago).
Chairman Slaughter has taken a different approach and four penalty enhancement bills have been approved by his committee this year.
After her stinging defeat last year, Representative McCombie started working her bill hard, and even managed to get herself appointed to Judiciary-Criminal. She refiled her bill and added enhanced penalties for knowingly physically attacking Adult Protective Service employees at the Illinois Department on Aging.
Last week, Judiciary-Criminal unanimously approved Representative McCombie's new bill. Representative Turner even co-sponsored the bill this time, as did Chairman Slaughter.
Slaughter told me he's willing to consider "sensible" penalty enhancement bills like McCombie's.
"We decided this year to consider, respectfully, those penalty enhancements that were sensible that didn't have anything to do with some of the 'Truth in Sentencing' punitive policies," Slaughter said.
Last year's hearing clearly got out of hand. Democratic leadership wanted to punish McCombie and other Republicans for speaking out, so they staged that dramatic hearing to kill their bills. A new Madigan chief of staff who isn't constantly looking for drama-filled confrontation in a new post-Rauner era also likely contributed to the currently changed atmosphere. They can disagree without being so disagreeable.
And keep an eye on a new topic that is almost sure to surface. As I write this, 15 Illinois State Police troopers have been struck by motorists since the beginning of January. Two troopers have been killed.
The penalty for drivers who don't move over or slow down for emergency vehicles is just a fine and possible loss of license. Somebody in the legislature will surely try to pass an enhancement bill, and this one will be tough to stop – and, frankly, shouldn't be stopped if properly drafted.