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As Republicans push crime as top election issue, House Speaker defends Democratic efforts at reform but hints at new anti-crime package

SPRINGFIELD — With Republicans hammering the statewide spike in crime as their top election year issue, Democratic state legislators are being forced to defend last year’s sweeping criminal justice legislation and have opened the door to adding crime-fighting proposals to the agenda of this year’s condensed session in Springfield.

Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch was vague about what measures could be under consideration, but acknowledged a need to address increases in crimes like carjackings and organized retail theft.

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“I can’t talk to you about specifics 11 days into session. But I can tell you that conversations are already taking place on, you know, a possible crime package, anti-crime package,” the Hillside Democrat said in a telephone interview this week to mark his first year as the General Assembly’s first Black House speaker.

“It’s being done with all stakeholders involved. And we’re just getting started. But that’s certainly something that’s high on our priority list,” Welch said.

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Illinois House Speaker Emanuel "Chris" Welch walks up to speak to the media after being elected on Jan. 13, 2021, at the Bank of Springfield Center in Springfield.
Illinois House Speaker Emanuel "Chris" Welch walks up to speak to the media after being elected on Jan. 13, 2021, at the Bank of Springfield Center in Springfield. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

Republicans in the General Assembly have talked about measures to tackle carjackings and organized retail theft as part of their effort to paint Democrats as weak on crime heading into November’s election, when all state legislators and Gov. J.B. Pritzker will be on the ballot.

The GOP has also maintained a drumbeat of criticism over the criminal justice legislation, which proponents say was intended to address inequities in the justice system, that was passed by the Democrats last year and signed into law by Pritzker. Republicans say the law as a whole weakens law enforcement and emboldens criminals.

A key provision of that legislation is the elimination of cash bail in 2023. Pro-police groups have expressed concern the measure could lead to more crime, despite there being no empirical proof that some reforms made in recent years, such as with Cook County’s bail system, exacerbated crime in Chicago.

Despite that, in an interview with the Tribune last month, House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, of Western Springs, offered a bleak prediction of the effect he expects the elimination of cash bail to have.

“No one should feel comfortable that people who are in this system ... are going to return to the courthouse,” said Durkin, a former Cook County prosecutor. “These guys aren’t going to show up. I know it for a fact.”

Welch said he remained a supporter of cash bail elimination and cautioned against tying a measure that hasn’t yet taken effect to the rise in violence.

“The violence that’s going on in the country, going on in the state, violence is going on everywhere. It’s an issue. It has nothing to do with a piece of reform that hasn’t even gone into effect yet,” he said.

But in a Zoom-based public meeting last week about crime concerns in Chicago’s Lakeview community, state Sen. Sara Feigenholtz, a Chicago Democrat who voted in favor of the criminal justice reform package, suggested the law might need to be reexamined.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker is joined by lawmakers and community advocates including state Rep. Justin Slaughter, left, and state Sen. Elgie Sims Jr., right, as he signs HB 3653, a sweeping criminal justice and police reform bill, on Feb. 22, 2021, at Chicago State University.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker is joined by lawmakers and community advocates including state Rep. Justin Slaughter, left, and state Sen. Elgie Sims Jr., right, as he signs HB 3653, a sweeping criminal justice and police reform bill, on Feb. 22, 2021, at Chicago State University. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

“I don’t think that anybody bargained for repeat offenders and people who were in possession of a gun and accused of a violent crime to be released on an I-Bond,” she said at the meeting, first covered by the crime-reporting website CWB Chicago. An I-Bond, short for Individual Bond, allows a defendant to be released without having to post bail.

Democratic state Rep. Margaret Croke, also of Chicago, on Wednesday introduced a bill that would prevent people charged with attempted first-degree murder, reckless homicide, armed carjacking and other serious offenses from being released on electronic monitoring. Feigenholtz will be sponsoring similar legislation in the Senate.

Chicago ended last year with some 800 homicides — a number not reached since the mid-1990s — and over 4,000 people shot. The city also recorded more than 1,700 carjackings, the highest tally for that crime in the city in years.

The carjacking issue hit especially close to home for state legislators after Democratic state Sen. Kimberly Lightford and her husband were carjacked in near west suburban Broadview on Dec. 21. The crime led to a shootout between the suspects and Lightford’s husband, who police said possesses a concealed carry license.

In the last two years amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there have also been numerous smash-and-grab burglaries at retail stores, including high-end shops on Chicago’s Gold Coast and Magnificent Mile, as well as in the suburbs.

Other Illinois cities have also been beset by increasing crime. Peoria ended 2021 with 34 people slain, a record for the Central Illinois city of about 113,000 people. In Champaign, a city of about 88,000 people, 17 homicides were recorded, the most ever for that city as well, according to news reports.

Welch’s vague reference to “anti-crime” measures comes as Democrats have pushed for more community-based, holistic solutions to the violence.

Welch pointed to the $250 million that Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration and the legislature have pledged for violence prevention groups that focus on street conflict mediation and connecting at-risk individuals with mental health services, job training and other social service needs.

Welch also pointed a finger at the other party, turning to one of his familiar talking points of blaming former GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration for cutting anti-violence funding during his term from 2015 to 2019 amid a more than 700-day budget impasse.

“Bruce Rauner and the current Republican leaders in the legislature that stood by and allowed him to wreak havoc on our infrastructure, we’re still paying the price for a lot of that today,” Welch said.

“And you can’t ignore the root causes. And root causes are very much things about housing insecurity, food insecurity. People are going to do things when they get desperate.

“And so we have to continue to do the things that we possibly can to address both, making sure law enforcement has the tools and resources they need. But we also have to address the root causes. And that’s why putting this infrastructure back in place is so important.”

Welch noted that the criminal justice bill can still be refined. Last week, for example, the legislature passed a trailer bill for the criminal justice reform package to address concerns from law enforcement about the police officer decertification process, and guidelines related to police body camera footage and detainee phone calls.

Asked how he’d ease the mind of residents left uneasy about the outright elimination of cash bail, Welch said “the legislature is here to address” those issues.

“We’re continuing to have conversations with our friends in law enforcement. We’re continuing to have conversations with state’s attorneys across the state,” Welch said. “We’re going to look at ways to make sure law enforcement is properly funded, properly trained, properly educated. We’ll be able to do that in our budget.”

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