Updated: Feb 21
This week, Illinois Representative Justin Slaughter, in partnership with the Workers Center for Racial Justice (WCRJ), introduced the Securing All Futures through Equitable Reinvestment (SAFER) Communities Act. This groundbreaking legislation, which was crafted by WCRJ’s council of formerly incarcerated members, aims to dismantle the state’s destructive prison system, and equitably reinvest public resources back into local communities.
The SAFER Communities Act (HB 3215) would take critical steps to end Illinois’ inhumane and racially targeted practice of mass incarceration by reforming overly punitive sentencing laws. The measure would lower penalties for all felony categories and allow individuals who are currently incarcerated to petition the courts for retroactive re-sentencing.
The bill would also require Illinois to track and set aside public savings resulting from reductions in the state prison population. These earmarked funds would help finance a living wage job creation program for up to 20,000 formerly incarcerated workers. The SAFER Communities initiative would offer local businesses financial incentives for employing workers with conviction records into newly created high-quality jobs.
The unemployment level among people with conviction records is nearly five times the overall national rate. In Illinois, more than half of all job seekers returning from incarceration are unable to obtain stable employment within eight months of release. Those who do secure work are compensated at significantly lower rates.
Without a pathway to opportunity, 43% of Illinoisans with conviction histories will return to prison within three years of their release. The rate of prison returns is correlated with both unemployment of lower wage work. This cycle of incarceration undermines the long term economic stability of impacted individuals, their families, and communities. Moreover, the current rate of reincarceration is projected to cost Illinois more than $13 billion over the next five years.
Given the current economic challenges Illinois faces, WCRJ calls upon lawmakers to divest critical public dollars away from the state’s toxic prison system, and responsibly reinvest in a more just, equitable, and prosperous Illinois. In order to spur job growth, support Illinois businesses, and boost the state economy, we urge the Pritzker administration and members of the Illinois General Assembly to prioritize passage of the SAFER Communities Act in the current legislative session.
WCRJ gratefully acknowledges Representative Justin Slaughter for his invaluable dedication in bringing this critical piece of legislation to the Illinois General Assembly.
On January 11th, 2021, Workers Center for Racial Justice executive director DeAngelo Bester was called by the Illinois House Judiciary Committee to provide expert witness testimony in a subject matter hearing on the Illinois Black Caucus (ILBC) omnibus bill on criminal justice reform.
DeAngelo's testimony addressed the issue of police impunity provisions in collective bargaining agreements and state law:
"My name is DeAngelo Bester and I work for an organization called the Workers Center For Racial Justice. We are an independent Black political organization that focuses on organizing unemployed, low-wage and formerly incarcerated Black workers around issues of racial, economic and gender justice. I have been an organizer for nearly twenty years, including several years working as a labor organizer for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in Wisconsin and the American Federation of State County Municipal Employees (AFSCME) here in Illinois. My organization and I are dedicated to fighting for and protecting the rights of marginalized workers.
There is an old phrase that Black people use to say and that is, 'The Cops and Klan go hand in hand!' There was a time in this country when terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and other White mobs and vigilantes were able to kill Black people with impunity, for doing nothing. Famously, Emmitt Till was killed for whistling at a White woman, and his murderers got away with it. As racial politics improved in this country, it became unacceptable to lynch and kill Black people for doing nothing, unless you were a police officer. Unfortunately, many of the same attitudes, behaviors and actions towards Black people that existed during America’s Apartheid period known as Jim Crow, are prevalent in many of our public safety institutions. Some of the same conditions and policies that allowed for Emmitt Till’s murderers to escape accountability, are present in modern day police union contracts.
Which brings me to the issue of police impunity in municipal contracts and state law. Throughout Illinois, powerful union contracts shield police officers from investigations of alleged misconduct and abuse. Local police unions like Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), have negotiated municipal agreements that are designed to obstruct nearly any effort to reform departments or hold individual officers accountable for criminal acts. The FOP’s current collective bargaining agreement contains a litany of unjust shields against officer accountability, which fall far outside of the scope of labor rights. This includes: mandatory destruction of misconduct records, narrow statutes of limitations on police complaints, and protocol to allow officers to postpone statements after a police shooting, and to amend prior testimony after reviewing case evidence.
Many of these dangerous impunity provisions are also mirrored in state law, under the Uniform Peace Officers' Disciplinary Act.
Not only are these measures unjust, they are also deadly to Black and Brown communities. Armored by unjust protections, officers are often emboldened to exceed the limits of their powers, with the assurance of virtual immunity.
A recent University of Oxford investigation of the nation's one hundred most populous cities found that impunity provisions in police contracts are correlated with increased officer violence. In this study, Chicago ranks the highest, both in terms of contract shields against accountability, as well as rates of police brutality.
Now let me be clear, I have spent my professional career fighting on the side of workers’ rights, and I am not here today to advocate for the diminishment of workers’ legitimate rights to negotiate fair and just employment conditions.
I am here to call upon the Illinois Legislature to take reasonable steps to strengthen our state’s labor laws so that they no longer offer refuge for anti-Black systems of police brutality, abuse, and corruption.
Workers’ rights to collectively bargain are a vital mechanism for ensuring equity and justice in our labor market – and by extension throughout our society as a whole. And yet for nearly half a century, unions like the FOP have worked in bad faith to undermine the rightful intentions behind these powers. In cities across the state, police unions abuse and weaponize bargaining rights as a means to evade accountability for officer wrongdoing, and perpetuate systems of racialized police brutality, harassment and corruption.
Please do not be fooled by the rhetoric coming from the other side. What this bill does is quite simple, and in our opinion very reasonable. If passed, this bill will do the following:
Would outlaw police contract measures that obstruct open investigation of alleged officer misconduct and thwart efforts to enact meaningful police reform
The bill would restore the intended purpose of collective bargaining rights, by limiting police union agreements exclusively to matters of compensation, hours and benefits.
The bill would also repeal sections of Illinois law that echo police contract impunity provisions - specifically the so-called officer bill of rights - or the Uniform Peace Officers' Disciplinary Act.
I want to end by saying that this bill should in no way, shape or form, ever lead to the elimination of collective bargaining rights for public sector employees or be applied to any workers outside of sworn peace officers. And to be honest, this really isn’t even about labor rights at all. This is about stopping the continued harassment, brutalization and killing of Black and Brown people at the hands of police, without any real accountability. There is a very clear choice we have before us. We can either be on the side of the FOP and their White Nationalist, White Supremacist, anti-democratic allies like the Proud Boys and American Identity Movement, or we can be on the side of equity and justice. I know which side I’m on! Thank you for allowing me to speak!"
Updated: Jan 22
The Workers Center for Racial Justice celebrates today's passage of the landmark omnibus bill on criminal justice championed by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus (ILBC) and grassroots community groups across the state. This momentous policy package would take crucial steps in advancing racial equity, justice, and liberation in Illinois by enacting targeted reforms to anti-Black systems of law enforcement and mass incarceration.
WCRJ applauds the ILBC for its leadership, vision, and responsiveness to Black-led community organizations in crafting the omnibus bill. The ambition and strength of this historic racial justice legislation attests to the unassailable imperative that public policy be led by the constituents and elected officials most impacted by the issues at hand. Guided by community input, the ILBC’s policy package would enact long overdue reforms to anti-Black systems of policing, and revise overly punitive and racially targeted sentencing laws.
Members and supporters of WCRJ played an instrumental role in shaping and advancing the omnibus bill on criminal justice. Since the nationwide uprisings for Black Liberation began this summer, WCRJ has mobilized thousands of local residents to participate in direct actions and policy advocacy with Illinois lawmakers on issues pertaining to racialized police violence and mass incarceration. Our members have spoken with Illinois legislators, filed witness slips, placed phone calls, and sent more than 40,000 emails urging action on key racial justice legislation.
During the lame duck session, WCRJ provided committee hearing testimony, policy analysis, and legislative language in order to ensure that the omnibus bill reflected community demands. Through our efforts, WCRJ secured the following victories:
The omnibus bill adopts key police accountability language drafted by WCRJ, which would outlaw the destruction of police conduct records, and prohibit unjust barriers to filing officer complaints, such as the sworn affidavit requirement currently in place in many police departments.
In partnership with CHANGE Illinois, WCRJ championed a provision to abolish Illinois’ system of prison gerrymandering, ensuring more racially equitable federal funding and democratic representation in government.
As a member of the Chicago Coalition to End Money Bond, WCRJ supported the fight to end the racialized practice of wealth-based pretrial incarceration in Illinois.
Our work is not over. WCRJ members now call upon Governor J.B. Pritzker to sign the ILBC’s omnibus bill into law. And in the upcoming session of the Illinois General Assembly, we will mobilize community members behind a policy agenda to abolish systems of police impunity, end extended term sentencing, and invest in equitable access to employment for formerly incarcerated Illinoisans.
WCRJ would like to thank Senator Elgie Sims, Representative Justin Slaughter, Representative Carol Ammons, and Representative Kambium Buckner for their exemplary leadership in guiding this landmark legislation. We also acknowledge the tremendous contributions of the many allied grassroots organizations who fought tirelessly to secure other major victories in the policy package.
Most importantly, WCRJ extends our deepest gratitude and respect to the tens of thousands of local residents who participated in the political uprising for Black Liberation this summer. This historic expression of Black community power catalyzed the political will needed to pass this historic legislation.