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ILBC Pillars

Though the work of fully implementing the laws will take years – perhaps decades – the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus’ year-long effort to cleanse Illinois’ government systems of racism is officially the law of the land. The fourth and final pillar of their agenda – health care and human services – was signed by the governor in late April.

When George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer sparked worldwide protests, Senate Majority Leader Kimberly A. Lightford (D-Chicago) – who was chair of the Black Caucus – called together her colleagues to take advantage of that anger and energy to enact real change.

The caucus gathered and decided that rather than focusing solely on police reform, they would push forward with an ambitious agenda. The goal was to confront problems they had been trying to solve for the entirety of their careers – problems that had held them back, their children back, and so many others in the Black community, problems that were baked into the very fabric of American society.

They decided to go back to the very beginning and examine Illinois’ laws for inherent racist policies born out of the eras when they were written. They also looked at societal problems confronting Black Illinoisans (and often by extension Brown or lower-income Illinoisans) to try to figure out if different government policies could be used to improve people’s lives.

The result of their meeting was a decision to address four pillars of society that consistently hold Black communities back:

  • Criminal justice, police accountability, and violence reduction
  • Education and workforce development
  • Economic access, opportunity, and equity
  • Health and human services

The caucus proceeded to hold dozens of formal online hearings on their four pillars in the Senate, along with extensive one-on-one negotiations with interested community groups, government agencies, and unions. Over the months, clear themes and ideas took form for each pillar, coalescing into concrete legislation at the end of 2020.

Criminal justice, police accountability, and violence reduction

The most contentious part of the package was criminal justice reform.

“This historic moment is the result of a monumental effort on the part of countless people, from those who testified during the 30 hours of public hearings on these issues, to those who have pushed for some of these reforms for years, and especially to the Illinoisans who signaled their support,” said Senator Elgie Sims (D-Chicago), the measure’s sponsor. “I thank them for lifting up their voices and never giving up, and I thank Gov. Pritzker for making these measures the law of the land. The journey continues.”

The law takes many steps to both increase police accountability and provide police with additional resources. The caucus’ ultimate goals are to cultivate and support good police officers, ensure that reducing violence and de-escalating conflicts are at the forefront of every encounter between the police and the public, and to address some of the core problems that police often respond to – like substance abuse and mental health crises.

To improve accountability, the law:

  • Institutes a statewide certification and decertification system for law enforcement officers,
  • Requires the use of body cameras,
  • Prevents destruction of law enforcement misconduct records,
  • Creates police misconduct databases, and
  • Empowers the attorney general to investigate deaths in law enforcement custody.

To support officers, the law:

  • Amplifies law enforcement training standards,
  • Increases and improves de-escalation and mental health training, and
  • Addresses officer wellness and mental health awareness and screenings.

To help improve public trust and reduce violence, the law:

  • Reforms crowd control response,
  • Connects substance abuse treatment programs with first responder duties,
  • Requires law enforcement to develop plans to protect children during search warrant raids,
  • Bans the use of chokeholds and other extreme measures, and
  • Establishes statewide use of force standards.

However, it also goes beyond law enforcement reform to address broader issues with Illinois’ criminal justice system. Perhaps the boldest change it makes it to the state’s cash bail system, replacing it with a new system that detains all dangerous defendants, regardless of their ability to pay.

“The cash bail practice stands at the intersections of racism, classism and sexism,” said Senator Robert Peters (D-Chicago), who has long advocated for reform to the bail system. “It is a tiered system of safety where if you are poor, but especially if you are Black and poor, and even more so if you are Black, poor, and a woman, then you will have access to different safety, freedom and rights.”

The new system focuses on public safety. People accused of dangerous crimes who present a clear risk to themselves or others would remain behind bars while awaiting trial, while non-violent and low risk arrestees would be released.

Education and workforce development

In addition to racist law enforcement policies that have long outlived their original authors, one of the biggest points of tension that draws law enforcement officers into Black communities are the many problems associated with poverty.

While poverty creates challenges for everyone – regardless of race – Black Americans have faced a more difficult climb to generate wealth and create economic stability for their families because of systemic race-based biases in the nation’s education and economic systems. The caucus also resolved to confront those issues.

"It's time for our children to accelerate their education throughout the duration of their careers, from early learning to prestigious universities, followed by successful careers,” said Lightford, who sponsored the legislation. “I’m humbled to have led this effort and look forward to continuing to fight to ensure fairness and equality in Illinois for all our state’s residents."

The education and workforce development component of the caucus’ agenda addresses problems that stretch from birth to adulthood.

The primary tool it focuses on during early childhood is Early Intervention services. This program offers support to families whose children face extra developmental challenges that could easily put them behind before they even reach kindergarten. The new law expands access to Early Intervention until the beginning of the school year after the children turn 3. It also requires the state to try to find a way to enable Medicaid to pay for additional Early Intervention services.

The law also takes forceful measures to ensure that every child who graduates from an Illinois public high school at least has the opportunity to apply to a college or university, to learn about the history of their own community, and to have teachers who look like them and share their community experiences.

To make it easier for Black students – and really any students from lower-income communities – to succeed at higher education admissions, the law increases high school graduation requirements, aligning them with the basic application requirements at the state’s flagship public university – the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. It requires all students to have at least two years of laboratory science and a foreign language or sign language. It also requires all high school graduates to have at least one year of an intensive computer literacy course and all high schools to offer at least one computer science course.

The law also creates a commission to review Black history curriculum standards – as well as the standards for teaching about other marginalized groups – and creates incentives to help get more minority teachers into the state’s classrooms. To address the reality that many children growing up in poverty-stricken communities also face intense trauma, the law creates a task force to provide schools with guidance on how to help students process trauma while still succeeding at their studies.

On the higher education front, the new law standardizes English and math placement requirements at community colleges, helping reduce the number of expensive non-credit classes students must take. It also increases access to certain scholarships, and supports the state’s Board of Higher Education in its efforts to find more race conscious and equitable ways to fund the state’s public universities.

Economic access, opportunity, and equity

Though a good education can go a long way to help address issues of poverty, it isn’t the only barrier holding the Black community back. The caucus’ package also addresses issues with housing, hiring, equal pay, and predatory lending.

“Since this nation’s inception, there’s been a massive disparity in access to economic opportunity in America. This imbalance affects all aspects of life, especially housing and access to capital,” said Christopher Belt (D-Centreville), who sponsored the changes to the law. “If the federal government won’t take the lead, Illinois will. It’s time our state reaches its full potential, giving Middle America a beacon to strive toward.”

There is no easy way to address the historic issue of redlining, but the caucus’ plan tries to ensure that all families can find safe housing by making it easier for people of every background – especially those with a criminal history, who are disproportionately Black – to access public housing.

The law also reforms the hiring process by prohibiting employers from using conviction records in their decision making process unless the nature of the crime relates specifically to the job the applicant is applying for. It further allows employers to consider evidence of rehabilitation and the circumstances surround a crime when making hiring decisions.

To address the consistent pay gap between Black people – and other people of color – and white people working the same jobs, the new law requires companies with more than 100 employees to certify that they are in compliance with all federal equal rights statutes and that women are not paid consistently less than men working the same jobs. The law also takes several steps to increase minority access to state contracts.

Finally, the law cracks down on predatory lending targeted at lower-income families by setting a cap on interest rates for installment loans, like payday and title loans.

“Just as it is with redlining, with bias in insurance rates, and with the ongoing disparity in home lending, this is not just about financial ethics. It’s about racial justice,” said Senator Jacqueline Y. Collins (D-Chicago), who has long fought to reform the industry. “There is a growing understanding among Illinoisans that these financial systems target people of color and entrench racial poverty. When we have honest, hard conversations, we can topple barriers.”

Health and human services

The final component of the caucus’ agenda is an ambitious reform to state health care and human services laws. In the same way that George Floyd’s tragic death exposed continuing racist polices and norms in law enforcement agencies, the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the continuing biases and disparities in America’s health care system. Black and Brown Americans have seen approximately three times as many hospitalizations and twice as many deaths due to the pandemic is white Americans.

Though some problems with the health care system are nationwide, others are specific to Illinois, allowing the state government to take action to correct them.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the systemic economic, educational and health disparities that have historically plagued African Americans across our country. For centuries, Black people have been disrespected, abused and misused in the name of health care, starting with the abuse of the enslaved,” said Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago), who negotiated the measure. “To prevent future harm to one of our most vulnerable populations, we have enacted this informed policy, with the goal of deep, intense reform.”

To help improve health outcomes, the new law requires an analysis of the state’s Medicaid managed care program, creates new programs to address diseases that disproportionately address Black Illinoisans – like sickle cell – takes action to reduce Black maternal mortality (which far exceeds the rates for white Illinoisans), and makes it more difficult to close hospitals – which most frequently happens in minority communities.

Perhaps most importantly, the law also creates a commission to comb through state law looking for additional racist policies that afflict Black and Brown communities and damages their health outcomes, and requires the state to undertake a systematic review of its own programs addressing health and human services.

In a move that will help all Illinois families, the law also strengthens enforcement of the laws governing paid sick leave and specifies that sick leave benefits must be able to be used to care for sick parents, step parents (and grandparents), and mother and father-in-laws.

Looking forward to the future

Though these laws are on the books, they won’t take affect overnight. It will take years of hard work to ensure they are fully implemented and enforced and years longer to change the broken cultures and norms that racist laws have created.

Members of the Senate Black Caucus are committed to making sure these laws have their intended effect, and they have vowed to take more action if needed.

“The Black Caucus will not stop fighting until our government not only supports Black life, but provides an environment for Black Illinoisans to thrive in society,” Lightford said.

The laws are Public Acts 101-652, 101-654, 101-656, 101-657, 101-658, 101-659, and 102-4.