Hyde Park-Kenwood state Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th) is having another busy spring legislative session, running bills to advance the opportunities of youth in state care, establish a "right to play" for elementary students, reform Local School Councils (LSCs), and reform criminal justice in the state for both adults and juveniles.
"And I have two bills from the House I'm supposed to grab," he said in a Zoom interview from Springfield, "but we can do that at a later date."
Senate Bill 63, which passed the Senate unanimously on April 21 and is now chief co-sponsored in the House by local Rep. Curtis J. Tarver II (D-25th), "just helps youth in care fill out their FAFSA," Peters said, "so they don't miss the deadline to get funding for college." The Department of Children and Family Services would require anyone entering the last year of high school to complete the application between Oct. 1 and Nov. 1.
SB 64, which passed 39-17 on April 21, "is just so that people have protection when they go to restorative justice courts," Peters said. "Sometimes things are said in restorative justice courts that can be admissible, and it doesn't give people faith to actually participate in restorative justice."
Specifically, the bill makes it such that anything said in preparation for restorative justice practice or follow-up is privileged and cannot be used in any civil, criminal, juvenile or administrative proceeding, with certain exceptions. The Juvenile Justice Institute and Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans both support the bill
SB 651, which passed unanimously on April 21, is a legislative fix "is to ensure that the clerk of the courts are moving paperwork" in a timely manner, Peters said. "It's a very technical issue, to make sure that families are aware of the transfer of minors. It's more a streamlining of the court process for families."
SB 654, which passed 36-16 on April 22, establishes a "right to play" for all kindergartners through 8th-graders in Illinois public schools, non-inclusive of physical education. Schools also cannot withhold play time as disciplinary action.
"This comes out of Illinois Families for Public Schools. They've been working on this for years," Peters said. "When you have schools that oftentimes have over-testing and literally just crush people's minds, I think having the ability to play and have your imagination, and have your ability to develop healthy emotional relationships with people is something that's vitally important for young kids.
"For me particularly, having been born deaf, having developed a speech impediment, having had a lot of struggles in school, that play time I had with friends was some of the most important parts of my learning experience. It helped me develop and grow, and it helped me to do that in a space that provided very little pressure in terms of 'success,'" he said. "I think it's a very important bill, and I think that we over-test kids. And I think that we don't actually let them live their lives."
SB 2116, which passed unanimously on April 21, "is really just an add-on to a bill I did before," Peters said, extending a mandate to provide civics education to people incarcerated in Illinois prisons to those in juvenile justice facilities.
And SB 2129, which passed on a 31-17 vote on April 21, would allow a state's attorney to petition the sentencing court to re-sentence an offender if the original sentence "no longer advances the interests of justice," with a lesser sentence.
The bill is an initiative of the Cook County State's Attorney's Office; an inmate's disciplinary record and record of rehabilitation could be taken into account, as could evidence that age, time served and health could reduce risk of future violence and the suggestion that circumstances around the original sentencing have changed such that continued incarceration no longer serves the interests of justice.
“There are several factors that go into determining a sentence for a crime, but in time, some or all of those factors could change,” Peters said in a statement. “Giving state’s attorneys the ability to ask a court to reduce sentences will ensure that people aren’t locked up for longer than they should be.”
SB 652, which passed the Education Committee unanimously on April 20, changes the number of Chicago Public Schools LSC members required for a quorum, should membership fall below seven due to vacancies, to four, with at least two of them being elected members.
"This is because many Black and Brown schools and LSCs lack a quorum," he said. "Lugenia Burns Hope Center. Raise Your Hand, Illinois Families for Public School, KOCO — they all brought it to me."
CPS also supports the bill, he said. "Oftentimes when we have a 'flat' issue like this, when you have the segregation that Chicago has, it just doesn't work for everybody," he said. "The numbers have to be adjusted to make it so that at least it works for the communities most in need here, and this is where we know that Black and Latinx schools have an issue when it comes to making quorum, and this is a way for us to do so."
SB 653, which passed the Financial Institutions Committee unanimously on April 15, would allow the Illinois treasurer to manage linked deposits to a bank or financial institution. "Essentially what it means is that the treasurer will have the ability to bring more equity to some of our financial institutions without having to go through a longer process."
SB 2122, which passed the Criminal Law Committee on April 14 on a 7-3 vote, would prevent police from practicing deception during interrogations leading to confession for minors in Illinois.
"You think about the Central Park Five?" Peters asked, referring to the wrongful 1989 rape convictions of five New York City Black and Latino teenagers, later chronicled in the television miniseries "When They See Us." "This has been something that happens in the 'false confession capital of the world' all the time, and we're in a competition with Oregon and New York to be the first state to ban deception of young people in interrogation."
Regarding broader issues that the state is facing, Peters said he is getting "conflicting reports" from federal sources about how much latitude the state has to spend from the American Rescue Plan, the latest round of stimulus passed under President Joe Biden.
"I think once we actually get the feedback from the federal government, we'll have a better idea," Peters said. "That'll have a profound impact on so many issues, from housing to our health care. I think it will just be important to know, because once we get that guidance, we'll have an idea of what we can do to spend that money."
Peters said he does not want to create programs with the federal funds that requires dedicated revenue streams, because it will run out.
"I'd rather spend that money to make sure it is maximized in that one usage and not make a promise for dedicated revenue from the federal government we are not guaranteed," he said. "I think it would be unfair to the public to give them something that requires a dedicated revenue stream that we can't actually dedicate the revenue to, because it's federal stimulus."
The General Assembly has not yet passed a budget, though the fiscal picture is rosier than it was thought to be a few months ago. Peters said he cares about getting "some structural stability" because it would allow the state to "be bolder in spending and borrowing."
Introduced in February, Gov. J.B. Pritzker's budget proposal does not include a property tax hike but instead relies heavily on federal stimulus to power the state government.
Another chief issue is the question of Chicago's elected school board.
Through an ally and Peters' colleague, Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford (D-4th), Mayor Lori Lightfoot is proposing a hybrid model in which some members would be elected but the majority would still be appointed by the mayor. Meanwhile, a proposal for an all-elected 21-member board, introduced by Northwest Side Sen. Robert Martwick (D-10th) has the support of House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch (D-7th) — and Sen. Peters.
"I support a fully elected, representative school board," he said. "There is no equity in the hybrid proposal."
Peters called Lightfoot's turnabout from her support of an all-elected school board, which she supported during her mayoral run "disappointing," and he noted that Decatur has elected a Black trans woman to their school board.
"I think the public should have the opportunity to make history when electing their own people to their own school board," he said.
The spring legislative session is scheduled to end on May 31.