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A good day for justice in Illinois

Updated: July 10, 2013 6:32AM



Lost in the chorus of catcalls from the pundits after Springfield’s colossal failure to agree on pension reform or gaming expansion or marriage equality — big issues that could have been resolved but weren’t — is a smattering of applause for a few things our anguished lawmakers did accomplish.

That includes several reforms supported by the Better Government Association, topped by passage of a bill that gradually extends electronic recording of police interrogations to eight additional felony categories.

Current law requires detectives to record interviews only with homicide suspects. Pending the governor’s signature, the additional recording will be phased in over three years.

This is not a big fiscal deal, like pension reform; or a new revenue stream, like gaming expansion; or a gay-rights issue, like marriage equality. It’s a moral imperative, an attempt to make our justice system more just.

Too often the system has failed, according to a 2011 BGA investigation that tabulated the staggering cost of wrongful convictions in human and financial terms.

In partnership with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law School, we studied 85 cases of Illinois defendants — mostly Black and Latino — who were convicted and later exonerated for violent crimes they didn’t commit since 1980, the unofficial beginning of the DNA era.

What we found is a shameful and reprehensible miscarriage of justice:

† The 85 individuals spent 926 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.

† The cost to taxpayers — in legal fees, jail stays and lawsuit settlements — was $214 million then, and now exceeds $250 million.

† The real perpetrators committed at least 62 additional felonies, including 14 murders, while the wrong people were imprisoned.

† And 81 of the 85 convictions were contaminated by errors or intentional fabrications by police, prosecutors and forensic experts.

In other words, individuals sworn to protect the innocent and punish the guilty did exactly the opposite.

And yet, with the exception of ex-Chicago police commander Jon Burge, who led a homicide squad that routinely tortured suspects, no one’s been punished.

It’s too late to rectify that travesty — the cases are too old — but it’s not too late to pass reforms aimed at deterring it in the future. That includes the way police lineups are conducted, evidence is handled, jailhouse “snitches” are used in court, and sworn personnel are held accountable when they subvert the law to win convictions.

Those are long-range goals.

But recording more felony interrogations is an important real-time measure to protect suspects from abuse and coercion, and police officers from false accusations.

So here’s a shout-out to the lawmakers who shepherded the bill through the Legislature:

Senator Kwame Raoul, Reps. Scott Drury and Mike Zalewski, and House Speaker Michael Madigan, who brokered the final deal with the help of prosecutors from Cook and other counties.

The BGA is a watchdog organization that shines a light on government and holds public officials accountable when their actions, or inactions, appear to be motivated more by self-interest than public interest.

But with this expansion of electronic recording, Illinois lawmakers are making our justice system a little more just.

That’s incredibly important, and it’s good government, so Springfield: Thank you.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at ashaw@bettertgov.org or 312-386-9097



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