CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — One week after the FBI reported a record rise in the nation’s annual murder rate in 2020, Illinois Senate Republicans renewed calls to “fund the police” and to crack down on violent crime during a pair of press conferences on Wednesday.
State senator Chapin Rose (R-Mahomet) staged the first of two press events in front of the Champaign Unit 4 School District bus yard to draw attention to a recent drive-by where a shooter fired several shots into a school bus with children inside.
“Violent thugs shot — shot! — a school bus taking kids home,” Rose exclaimed. “When you talk to citizens, they’ve had it. They’ve had it with schools getting shot at, they’ve had it with school kids being shot, they’ve had it with three people [shot] for revenge homicides.”
Rose unveiled a package of legislative proposals he labeled the “Fund the Police Act,” a response to advocates who called to defund the police after the police killing of George Floyd last summer.
In addition to calling for $100 million in funding for police training, overtime, and retention incentives, Rose wants to make the sentencing guidelines stricter and simpler for criminals convicted on felony gun charges. His proposal would impose 10-year sentences for first-time felony firearm offenders, and a life sentence for repeat offenders.
“I wish it was that simple,” Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz responded. “I don’t think we need any stiffer penalties.”
Rietz said it’s often a lack of hard evidence, not lenient laws, that allows violent criminals to go free. She called for greater resources to fund street surveillance cameras and lab equipment to process evidence.
Moments before she sat down for an interview, prosecutors from Rietz’s office persuaded a judge not to reduce a one million dollar bond set for Johnny Weatherall, a 27-year-old Champaign man accused of shooting a teenage girl on her front steps on August 23rd.
“He’s facing a maximum possible penalty of 60 years incarceration,” Rietz said. “But does that stop a person from committing a crime when they are in the mindset to commit that crime? The research tells us, ‘no.'”
“The deterrent effect that a stiff penalty can have is that it deters that individual from being able to commit that offense again,” she said, but added, “the harder part that we prosecutors face is being able to prove our case, beyond a reasonable doubt, to a jury of 12 citizens when we don’t have cooperative witnesses, when the word on the street is, ‘Don’t snitch,’ and when we don’t have the evidence to make our case.”
She described difficult cases with scant evidence as a “poker game” where the suspect is playing a hand and betting the government doesn’t have a strong case. She scoffed at Rose’s proposal that would require prosecutors to show their hand and justify any plea bargains in writing, warning such a requirement could backfire and put cooperating witnesses in harm’s way.
Rose said his plan would “require any State’s Attorney in this state who plea bargains down a gun crime to put it in writing so the citizens who elect them will be able to hold them accountable for the decisions they made.”
“He should know better,” Rietz said, referring to Rose’s prior work as a traffic court prosecutor.
“I was a prosecutor and I wouldn’t have liked that at the time,” Rose acknowledged, “but you know what, it’s the right thing to do. People are sick and tired of the plea bargain nonsense that’s leaving people to shoot buses on our streets.”
Police have not arrested any suspects in the September school bus shooting, and have not suggested the shooter pleaded down to lesser charges in a prior case.
“Ultimately, the [sentencing] decision lies in the hands of the judge,” Rietz noted, adding that some Champaign county judges who recently retired were “known to be very strict, strong sentencers.”
“They retired and we have new judges who’ve been elected or appointed to those positions,” Rietz said. “They may see things differently, and may be coming from a different perspective. So I do think that we have seen a change in sentencing.”
Illinois legislators adopted sweeping criminal justice and bail reform proposals in January that will phase out the use of money bail by 2023. Because arresting agencies receive a portion of those proceeds, some critics have argued ending cash bail technically defunds the police.
“It’s going to defund a large piece of all of us,” Rietz said about the revenue for prosecutors and police.
Rietz highlighted a recent study from the Illinois Supreme Court and Civic Federation that tallied the statewide cash bail revenue for law enforcement agencies at a range between $120 million and $150 million per year.
Rose’s plan would allow counties to opt out of ending cash bail if the county board adopts a resolution supporting it. That plan was not well-received by Senate Democrats, who hold a supermajority in the chamber.
“This is not a solution,” Senator Robert Peters (D-Chicago) responded. “This is dog whistle politics from people who just like to round up poor people. They don’t know what they’re talking about.”
“It actually costs more money to incarcerate someone,” Peters said, who sponsored the measure to eliminate money bond. “I’m sick and tired of it.”
Peters described the Republican media blitz as a page out of the political playbook of Lee Atwater, the GOP strategist whose notorious Willie Horton campaign advertisement helped elect George Bush in 1988.
Governor J.B. Pritzker’s office responded to the Republican calls to get tougher on crime, highlighting Democratic budgets that approved record funding for gun violence prevention and mental health services.
“On top of rebuilding our social safety net, the budgets signed by Governor Pritzker have provided hundreds of millions of additional dollars to local governments to support communities,” spokesperson Jordan Abudayyeh said in an email. “Those same budgets, that Republicans voted against, included funding for multiple new cadet classes to help Illinois State Police restore their hollowed out ranks. A new crime lab that will provide quicker evidence processing is being built with Rebuild Illinois funding signed into law by Governor Pritzker. Republicans voted against increased funding for training and mental health assistance for officers across the state and have opposed criminal justice reforms that will make our criminal justice system equitable.
“Spewing rhetoric is easy, taking the votes to support the public policy you claim to care about are what matter,” she said. “The Senate Republicans have shown us time and time again they care more about getting headlines than supporting solutions.”
When asked how he explained his votes against funding increases for Illinois State Police in the state budget, Rose retorted that it was a “BS question.”
“You can’t call out one specific provision in the budget and say, ‘Well, you did this,’ or ‘You did that.’ It doesn’t matter.”
The Republican proposals were filed for their first reading in the legislature on Wednesday. They have not yet been assigned to a committee for a hearing. Rose called on Senate President Don Harmon to call them for a vote during the October veto session.