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State Sen. Robert Peters 

State Sen. Robert Peters outlined his priorities on criminal justice for this fall’s session of the state legislature during a virtual discussion Wednesday evening, putting forward a mix of old and new proposals for reform across most aspects of the prison and police system.   

The discussion was hosted by Peters’s colleague, State Rep. Will Guzzardi, and also included 47th Ward Ald. Matt Martin, UIC social work professor Amy Watson, and Christian Snow, the executive director of radical grassroots organization Assata’s Daughters. Peters chairs the senate's Special Committee on Public Safety. 

Peters’s first priority on criminal justice, as he told the Herald this past January, is ending cash bail. “We need to abolish cash bail — just completely wipe it out,” he said during Guzzardi’s roundtable. “No more being found guilty of being poor.” 

Gov. J.B. Pritzker also said in January that eliminating cash bail throughout Illinois was a central part of his legislative agenda for criminal justice. In March, a statewide group of law enforcement organizations, including the Fraternal Order of Police, announced their opposition to Pritzker’s plan.  

But Peters also voiced support for a broader set of reforms that, taken together, constitute a “holistic approach” toward the criminal justice system, attempting to restructure the way people interact with each facet of policing and incarceration. 

For example, he wants to get rid of truth-in-sentencing laws — passed in 1998, they affect about a third of Illinois inmates, and prevent those convicted of certain offenses from earning time off through good behavior or similar actions. 

He also supports the end of the felony murder rule, which allows prosecutors to charge someone with murder if it takes place while they are committing a felony. (There have been at least two cases in Illinois where a pair of people attempted armed robbery, one was shot and killed by a police officer, and the other person was charged with first-degree murder.) Peters introduced a bill to reform those laws last October.

 “Felony murder is an absolutely atrocious way to stack on charges, particularly to young Black defendants who are on a public defender,” he said Wednesday. 

Peters will also continue pushing to add more options to emergency hotlines, which would provide response services to people experiencing mental or behavioral health crises. He introduced a bill in February to that effect, though it’s currently in committee. 

“When you're younger, you know, let's make sure that we don't have an interaction with the police happening. Let's reduce that as much as possible. Let's give people the love and the care that they need,” he said. “I think we have an opportunity to have a holistic bill, a rather historic bill compared to the rest of the country …. We have a chance to do the best bill on this.” 

Earlier this month, the Movement for Black Lives introduced the BREATHE Act, which would largely defund police programs at the federal level, invest in community-led safety initiatives and introduce a host of other changes, like ending civil asset forfeiture and mandatory minimum laws. While no piece of it has been introduced in Congress yet, U.S. Reps Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) have voiced their support for it. 

Peters said he would like to see a state-level version of that bill. “When it comes to people who need anything or have any emergency, you have an increase of more restorative justice dollars and de-escalation and violence prevention or interruption,” he said. “There’s more of a commitment and more dollars put into building relationships.” 

One example Peters cited is the “Peacebook” proposal, which would redirect funding from the Chicago Police Department to community safety programs. The suggested ordinance has been put forward by activist group GoodKidsMadCity (GKMC) — a teenage member of the organization, Miracle Boyd, was hit in the mouth by a CPD officer last Friday. 

Peters, who said after the incident that he had offered Boyd an internship in his office a few weeks ago, praised GKMC and other youth-led organizations and protest movements during Wednesday’s discussion. 

“I feel like with the current generation of young folks there is a consistency, that it will last for a long period of time. We have an opportunity, systemically, that we usually only see every 30 to 40 years when it comes to complete change,” he said. “If you’re able to have people who are trained in or invested in or have gotten into a position of collective power, then someone like me may or may not be there. It doesn’t matter as much as the investment that goes into young folks who can lead.”

Reporter

Christian Belanger graduated from the University of Chicago in 2017. He has previously written for South Side Weekly, Chicago magazine and the Chicago Reader.

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