One year after his appointment to the Illinois Senate, Robert Peters (D-13th) says his priorities in the upcoming legislative session are abolishing bail and creating a mental health emergency service available through 9-1-1. In a Herald interview, he also outlined his broader goals for a full term in the General Assembly. in the March 17 primary.
He urged that conversation about criminal justice focus on whether constituents feel safe instead of looking to incarceration as a solution. When he asks voters if they feel safer today than they did a decade or two ago, he said they usually tell him “no.”
"Then I ask them, ‘Why would we continue doing the same failed policies that haven't kept us safe for the past 10, 20 years?'" Peters continued. He observed that seven-year-old students in his district, which includes Hyde Park and runs along the lake from Streeterville to the Indiana border, have experienced trauma but attend public schools with security and police but no social worker or nurse — in disinvested, economically struggling, infrastructure-poor communities without a grocery store, affordable housing or safe drinking water.
"That is not safety for anybody,” he said, but said heavy police surveillance and patrols are designed to give a false perception of safety.
He proposes legislative fixes that he says will actually guarantee public safety in Illinois. Chief among them is abolishing bail.
"All it does is say someone's guilty of being poor, and it's a broken and failed system," Peters said, claiming that all it does is keep Illinois county jails unnecessarily full. "Currently the way bail works is that, if you have enough money, and you were accused of something, you could often be able to afford it — but if you're poor, you can't. That's really the conversation we are having."
Peters intends to introduce legislation and promised to do the grunt work to pass it: "I think it deep down is I got to work a roll call, and I think I need folks who are working on this, the Coalition (to End Money Bond) to help me work the roll call. I need other legislators to help me work the roll call. I think there need to be conversations with the governor and with stakeholders.”
Asked about how such bail reform would respond to violent criminals, Peters said parameters around someone who is "violent and detained" need to be defined, though defining those terms is often the role of the state judiciary. If in his legislation someone was deemed a threat to other people, they would be detained at a judge's prerogative.
Asked how his legislation would affect the value of cash bonds in curtailing flight risk, Peters said if someone was a risk to flee, "there could be determinations made to keep someone detained."
"Most of the time when we look at bond and how it's practiced, we're talking about 99.4% are people who aren't committing a murder or aren't a flight risk," Peters said, recalling the difficulty people who are required to appear in court have in accessing transportation, childcare or clearance to get off work. "I hear the flight risk thing, but that's a very small risk, and the idea is that it can be determined for them to stay. The biggest thing that people are concerned about is the threat to safety."
"For the very small (number) who'd maybe flee," he said, "we should not create a system that hurts many people who can't flee."
In his interview, Peters said he would also work to reform felony murder in the state to ban "proximate murder" charges, in which accomplices can be charged with the crime if their partner dies in the course of committing a felony. It comes after a man in Lake County shot and killed a teenager who was breaking into his car, and the state's attorney charged the five youth who were with him with murder. To that effect, he introduced Senate Bill 2292 to the body last October.
He expects the legislature to debate prison gerrymandering, in which incarcerated populations are added to a district to add up population but not voters, and wants to be included in those populations, and wants to be part of those conversations. He also expects debate over enfranchising more incarcerated Illinoisans. Pritzker signed a bill last year establishing a polling place at the Cook County Jail, but Peters wants polling places in prisons.
"If you create prison enfranchisement, there's a whole part about someone's right to express their vote — especially if they're counted in the census — but you combine that with the fact that it actually improves how people are treated in prison, when they have the right to vote," he claimed.
He anticipates a future discussion of redistricting reform in Illinois to prevent gerrymandering, though he cautioned about contrived commissions established and charged to draw political lines.
He said he does not believe full-time state legislators should have second jobs and that the General Assembly should meet year-round but called both ideas non-starters in Springfield, though other ethics proposals like enhanced financial disclosure could advance.
With the state's legalization of marijuana, Peters expressed concern for the stakes of black market dealers who are not "completely shut out from this market." He said he fears a greater crackdown on them that could force dealers to sell a different narcotic and heavy-handed law enforcement tactics against low-level sellers.
Nevertheless, Peters cautiously praised the "historic" way the state has legalized the drug legislatively: "The social equity piece is in of itself very historic compared to any other state." But he said federal action is needed for business lending in the industry and spreading the generated wealth legalization to those who got caught up in the war on drugs.
Peters said there is perhaps something to be said for considering the state's "three-tier system" to regulate the new business' industry. Under state law, alcohol producers, distributors and retailers are regulated differently, and policy ensures that their designated roles do not mix. Craft brewers hate the system, but "it does prevent someone from owning all and hoarding, which is something that has currently happened," he said. He thinks State Rep. Kambium Buckner's (D-26th) plan to create state-chartered banks serving the marijuana industry is a good idea.
Regarding mental health services, Peters wants to have an emergency service created for mental health crises, similar to how dialing 9-1-1 can summon the police, an ambulance or the fire department.
"If it's not an extremely violent situation, you'd have someone like a social worker or counselor who does that first response, and they can go and check in on people," he explained, recalling the police-involved death of a young, reportedly suicidal man in Woodlawn last summer and the University of Chicago Police Department's shooting of Charles Thomas, who was also suffering a mental health crisis, in April 2018.
Money would not go to police departments to fund the service. Peters said costs are not yet estimated, though Medicaid would be involved, and he did not know if the service providers would work for private health care services or the state. He said Access Living, a social services and advocacy organization for people with disabilities, is refining the policy before the introduction of a bill to the legislature.
On education, Peters said the state's school funding formula has "a bit of a flaw," calling it good in theory but regretting that Chicago Public Schools does not have to distribute its share of funding to schools in need especially.
"You have a lot of money; it moves away from reliance on property taxes — that is great, and I think that's something that should be celebrated," he said. He said Parkside Community Academy elementary school in South Shore, 6938 S. East End Ave., needs more money: "We don't need it to be at the whim of CPS to give it to Walter Payton, that's been getting the funding for quite some time."
Some of the money he earmarked in the capital bill is coming to district targets in stages, allowing schools to fund certain services or programs that otherwise with dollars that would have otherwise gone to capital needs.
On housing, Peters hopes to see state-owned, rent-subsidized ($200-$300 a month) social housing in Illinois, where cities would build it but the state would help fund it. He said discussions on the policy are preliminary and he hopes for federal action — to that end, he has endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) for president — and thinks it would stem evictions and homelessness and could utilize Chicago's considerable amount of vacant land.
Peters had hoped that a real estate transfer tax to fund homeless services and ease the city's fiscal situation would advance during veto session, but it did not. "I think there are conversations to bring this back," he said, adding that the top rate structure is the biggest point of contention.
He supports rent control, saying he would vote to lift its ban in Illinois, but called it a short-term solution that does not address systemic issues.
With last year seeing a nearly 25% increase in the number of deaths of children within a year of their involvement with Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) care, Peters said the General Assembly and governor need to take action towards the agency but thinks it is strained by decades of budget cuts to the point of being unable to function.
“We’re constantly trying to tell the agency to do more, even though it has a budget that, for the last 30 years, has basically been cut or extremely privatized, or overwhelmed, or have had directors who are rotating,” he said. But he cautioned that, with his heavy legislative agenda, he only expects long-term action on the issues.
Peters also responded to the recent WBEZ investigation finding that Michael McClain, a former lobbyist and confidant of House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-22nd), hinted about a cover-up of a state worker who allegedly committed a rape in Illinois. Peters said that McClain’s clout shows Illinois’ political system is broken.
"My main concern is that we need to get answers," he said, wondering if the affair means that lobbyists are threatening job-seekers in Illinois. "At the same time that we get answers, I think we need to be careful that someone survived rape and I don't want them to get doxxed or go through a series of traumas."
And on Sunday, Peters responded to the election of new Senate President Don Harmon (D-39th) of Oak Park, saying in a statement that he "will provide a fresh opportunity to reimagine safety and justice in our community."
“In 2019, we passed several major criminal justice reforms, but the way I see it, that was only the beginning. There’s a lot more work to be done, and I’m confident that President Harmon will be a strong ally in that fight," Peters said.
He observed that he is not a career prosecutor but would still like to chair the Criminal Law Committee someday.
"The idea of changing our criminal justice system is not confined to someone who went to law school," Peters. An adoptee who was born to a drug-addicted woman, he would not mind chairing the Human Services Committee, either, citing a need to "radically rethink" what the DCFS could be and what youth in care need.
Earning those positions will take work, though he says the Senate leadership does not grand chairmanships on seniority alone. In the meantime, he has tasks ahead of him this session.
"My dad died when he was 63; I want to be able to look back on the last 30 years and say 'I've done something,'" Peters said.