Editorial Roundup: Illinois

Daily Herald Heights Daily Herald. September 25, 2022.

Editorial: High court’s rejection of lawmakers’ pay raises is good news, but case comes with a cost

There is much to be happy for about the state Supreme Court’s ruling last week that two Illinois lawmakers are not due nearly $180,000 in back pay for raises they had voted to reject but decided after they’d left office they should get back. But there is cause for some sadness, too.

The most despicable thing, of course, is that the state had to deal with the case at all. While in office, Democratic state senators Michael Noland, of Elgin, and James Claybourne, of Belleville, voted with the majority of the General Assembly to freeze cost-of-living raises for state legislators that a 1990 law made automatic. The freezes were in effect from 2009 to 2019. The pair even campaigned on their sacrifice.

But almost immediately after they left office -- Noland in 2017 after serving 10 years and Claybourne in 2019 after 24 years -- these two honorable former public servants decided that the freezes were a violation of the state Constitution’s prohibition against changing lawmakers’ pay during their terms and filed a case against Democratic Comptroller Susana Mendoza demanding they be awarded back pay for the money they’d given up.

Mendoza, as aghast as any reasonable Illinoisan at their brazen greed, refused, and the case went to court.

Unfortunately, Mendoza lost at first. The raise freezes were originally declared unconstitutional, and in July 2019, a Cook County judge ordered that Noland and Claybourne be paid.

Mendoza refused on several grounds, and Democratic Attorney General Kwame Raoul joined her to take the case to the Supreme Court. Raoul did not dispute the constitutionality of the issue, but rather contended that, by voting for the freezes, touting them and then waiting until after they’d left office, Noland and Claybourne took too long to file suit and thereby had given up any right to the money.

On Thursday, the state Supreme Court agreed.

“We conclude that under the facts here, where plaintiffs, former legislators, agreed to, acquiesced in, and voted for the Salary Reduction Laws, plaintiffs cannot now be allowed to challenge the reductions in their salaries during their previous terms in office,” Justice P. Scott Neville wrote for the court.

That’s good news for Illinois taxpayers, of course, especially since the financial hit to the state could have been much worse. Noland and Claybourne, joined by another former state lawmaker, Republican Michael Fortner of West Chicago, wanted the back pay extended to everyone who served in the legislature during the period of the pay freezes -- an action that Mendoza estimates could have cost the state more than $10 million.

But the true cost would have been more than financial, and already has been incurred merely by the filing of these unfortunate suits. It comes in the form of lost public trust suffered by hundreds of other Illinois lawmakers who accepted and honored their commitment. That is a deeply sad outcome of the litigation, and not something that can be returned by any court order.

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Chicago Tribune. September 20, 2022.

Editorial: No, ‘The Purge’ isn’t here, but Illinois’ cash bail ban still needs work

Have you heard? “The Purge” is coming.

No, actually it’s not. But the midterm elections are coming in less than two months, which has led to a viral snowstorm of misinformation online and in fake newspaper handouts about a bill signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker that ends cash bail.

“Chicago is living ‘The Purge,’” Pritzker’s Republican challenger, Darren Bailey, told reporters last week, referencing a horror movie franchise in which a dystopian America celebrates a national holiday that legalizes all crime for 12 hours.

Bailey is a state senator and prosperous farmer from downstate Xenia who recently rented an apartment in the John Hancock Building to “immerse” himself in the culture of urban life. “With his SAFE-T Act,” Bailey continued, “J.B. is set to unleash the purge in neighborhoods all over Illinois as of Jan. 1.”

Hardly. We found much of the 700-page Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today law, known as the SAFE-T Act, to be laudable and worth pursuing, despite the questionable speed and lack of transparency with which the bill was rushed to passage, partly in the dead of night in the waning hours of the early 2021 state legislative session.

Its most contentious section is the Pretrial Fairness Act, which eliminates cash bail in all pretrial release decisions. It is scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, 2023.

The legislature’s Black Caucus authored the ban on cash bail because too many defendants awaiting trial are kept behind bars not because they pose an apparent flight risk or danger to the community, but simply because they can’t afford to make bail.

Justice if you can afford it? That’s not how our system is supposed to work, even though in many cases that tends to be the grim reality.

Mounting episodes of such unequal treatment also serve to undermine citizens’ faith in the justice system and their willingness to cooperate with law enforcement, ironically in communities struggling with rising violent crime.

The SAFE-T Act aims to reverse those perceptions in sweeping measures, including major changes in police training policies, police accountability, transparency in policing and the rights of detainees and prisoners.

But the benefits of these and other provisions of the bill are more obvious in some cases than others. Law enforcement agencies and prosecutorial associations sounded alarms, which is not surprising. Major changes to an arena as vast and complex as the criminal justice system were shoved through the legislature with little debate at the end of a legislative session — during a pandemic, no less.

Nevertheless, the worst-case scenarios spread online are essentially myths or, at best, misleading exaggerations.

For example, all murder suspects will not be released from county jails on New Year’s Day and the law will not defund the police.

Nor does the act make some violent crimes, including murder and homicide, “non-detainable offenses” prior to trial, which would allow violent criminals to be released without bail.

In fact, pretrial release still can be denied by a judge when a defendant poses a flight risk or a “specific, real and present threat to any person in the community.”

Significantly, pretrial release cannot occur until a judge considers the severity of the case. That’s how the system works now, except for those who continue to be held simply because they cannot afford to make bail.

Some other areas call for further examination and debate. Illinois House GOP Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs complained that defendants will be able to compel a victim to appear at a detention hearing, a proceeding that will replace a traditional bond hearing.

He reasonably questions what purpose it would serve to force, for example, a victim of a beating or a child who has been sexually assaulted to appear at a detention hearing.

After he raised that question at a news conference, the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation fired back over Twitter, citing an excerpt of the statute to argue that the Pretrial Fairness Act actually makes it more difficult for defense attorneys to call victims to the witness stand.

That’s only one of many controversial provisions that, while serving a useful purpose, cry out for clarity.

Bailey and some of his Republican colleagues have called for repealing the bill, which is not likely to happen, given the current Democratic control of the governor’s office and the General Assembly.

But Democrats have just as much of an interest in tweaking this legislation to clarify gray areas. The SAFE-T Act represents important reform, but it only works if its provisions are crystal-clear and firewalled from misinterpretation.

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Chicago Sun-Times. September 22, 2022.

Editorial: Charges against state Sen. Emil Jones III show cheap price of corruption in Illinois

The paltry $5,000 kickback Emil Jones III was allegedly promised in a scheme with the red-light camera company SafeSpeed LLC is indicative of how easily some of our elected leaders can apparently be bought off.

Five thousand dollars.

That may seem like a lot of money — to a junior high school student who baby-sits or mows neighborhood lawns for extra cash.

For an Illinois legislator, $5,000 should be no big deal. Chump change.

But that and a vow to employ an unnamed associate is pretty much all it took for State Sen. Emil Jones III, D-Chicago, to break the law, according to the feds.

Let’s be clear: No elected leader should seek or take a bribe of any amount. But the paltry kickback Jones was allegedly promised in a scheme involving red-light camera company SafeSpeed LLC is indicative of how easily some of our elected leaders can be bought off to do the wrong thing.

No wonder most Americans don’t trust politicians. Less than half the adults in the United States — 44% — say they have a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in people who hold or are running for public office, according to a 2021 Gallup poll.

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of other examples that illustrate why many Chicago area residents feel let down by their elected leaders.

Jones, the son of former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones Jr., isn’t the only politician who has been snared in the federal investigation of deals involving SafeSpeed, Sun-Times reporters Jon Seidel and Tina Sfondeles reminded us. Other politicians who have faced charges related to SafeSpeed include the late ex-state Sen. Martin Sandoval, former Crestwood Mayor Louis Presta, former Worth Township Supervisor John O’Sullivan and former Oakbrook Terrace Mayor Tony Ragucci.

Just two months ago, Jones III’s former colleague, Tom Cullerton, was sentenced to a year in prison in an embezzlement case.

Then in July, former Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th), a member of the most prominent political family in Chicago, was sent behind bars for four months for lying to banking regulators and filing false income tax returns.

Jones III agreed to protect SafeSpeed LLC from legislation in the Illinois General Assembly in exchange for the money and the job, federal prosecutors said. Then, he allegedly lied about doing so to the FBI.

Given that the charges filed against Jones III were written up in a document known as an information, he is expected to plead guilty.

Jones III has yet to resign his seat in the Legislature, but on Wednesday he gave up his committee chair and vice chair spots and his position as an assistant majority leader, the Sun-Times’ Mitchell Armentrout reported.

The elder Jones said the charges filed against his son “do not reflect the man he is.”

But if the younger Jones does eventually admit to the wrongdoing, the plea will make clear how he is part of the corruption problem.

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