What's Happening in Illinois: The state is becoming a showcase of progressive legislation.

AuthorAlbano, Teresa

Illinois made national headlines this year, and not for corruption or another governor going to prison. (Since the 1960s, four former Illinois governors, three Democrats and one Republican, have been incarcerated.) Instead, the headlines reflected groundbreaking steps the state has taken toward addressing systemic racism.

In March, the Chicago suburb of Evanston became the first locality in the United States to vote to pay reparations to Black residents. Evanston's city council authorized a first allocation of $400,000 from the city's reparations fund, slated to go to sixteen Black families for housing repairs or a downpayment on a new home.

The fund was established in November 2019, when the council voted to set aside the first $10 million collected in taxes from recreational cannabis dispensaries to financially address the city's discriminatory policies toward Black residents, including the disproportionate number of marijuana arrests.

Recreational cannabis was legalized in the state in June 2019. Called the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act, it was seen as having the strongest social equity measures in the nation.

In February, Illinois became the first state in the nation to enact a law abolishing cash bail--the ability to hold people in jail until they pay a set amount of money--which makes a mockery of the presumption of innocence and the Constitutional right to due process.

In Illinois, more than 250,000 people a year, many arrested for misdemeanors, languish in county jails.

A large percentage stay for months, even more than a year, because they cannot afford to pay bail, which can run into the thousands of dollars. They are incarcerated not for public safety but because they are poor, and often Black or Latinx.

Starting January 1, 2023, Illinois will be the first U.S. state to take access to money out of the decision over whether or not someone is incarcerated while they await trial.

"This is huge," Patrice James, director of community justice for the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, tells The Progressive. "There is nothing more unjust and racist than our pretrial system."

Pretrial detention can be a matter of life or death. Early in the pandemic, Cook County Jail became a COVID-19 hotspot. At least ten detainees have died from COVID-19, and it's because they could not pay bond.

Reparations and ending money bonds are just two developments that encapsulate how state and local lawmakers are grappling with white supremacy and racial inequity. There are more bills and laws being considered in Illinois to undo harm and meet people's needs, signaling a significant change in state politics.

Progressive reform measures, such as raising the state minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025 and legalizing recreational cannabis, had already passed in 2019 after the 2018 election. That's when state voters elected Democrats J.B. Pritzker as governor and Juliana Stratton as lieutenant governor--the first Black woman elected to the post. Pritzker, a liberal billionaire who ran on a progressive agenda, defeated a near-billionaire, incumbent Republican Bruce Rauner.

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