lady justiceThousands of police body cameras will hit the streets in the new year under major reforms sponsored by Senate Democrats in an effort to increase public accountability and confidence in the wake of scandals and unrest.

The new law, Senate Bill 1304, takes effect Jan. 1 and sets the official parameters for the use of police body cameras, increases training and reporting requirements for officers and clarifies the public’s right to access the videos. It is one of several key criminal and social justice reforms enacted by Senate Democrats in 2015, covering everything from protecting students’ educational rights to common-sense consumer laws aiding women trying to escape domestic violence.

“We’ve made great strides this year in defending the public’s right to be properly protected, with justice for all,” said State Senator Kwame Raoul, a Hyde Park Democrat who emerged as one of the state’s leading reform advocates.

Body cam laws have drawn the most attention, and recent events illustrate the power of such videos, or the lack of them.

For instance, the release of a more than year-old police dash cam video of a Chicago officer shooting a 17-year-old clearly contradicted the official report, prompting a federal investigation, murder charges against the officer and the dismissal of Chicago’s top cop.

Before that, the state was rocked by the apparent murder of a “hero” officer in Fox Lake. A massive manhunt for the killers ensued before it was determined the officer killed himself and staged it to look like a murder to cover up his own crimes. Had the department utilized body cams, the truth might have been determined much sooner.

Other key policing reforms from the Capitol this year include:
• Prohibiting the use of chokeholds
• Requiring independent investigations when officers kill someone
• Increased training requirements concerning the proper use of force and how to interact with victims and people with disabilities
• Creating a statewide database of officers dismissed due to misconduct

Student rights
A new state law hitting the books requires schools across the state to overhaul their suspension and expulsion policies in an effort to make sure schools aren’t trying to solve problems by getting rid of them. School records show that minorities and economically at-risk students are removed from the educational setting at exceedingly disproportionate rates, which leads to students falling behind.
“In many cases, these are students who need an education the most. A strong education is the only chance they have at improving their lives. Cancelling a child’s opportunity to learn should be a last resort, not the automatic response,” said State Senator Kimberly A. Lightford, who led the reform efforts.

Under SB 100, out-of-school suspensions longer than 3 days, expulsions and disciplinary removals to alternative schools are reserved for situations when a student’s presence is a safety threat or substantially disrupts the learning environment.

Schools are required to have new policies in place by Sept. 15, 2016.

Protecting women
Too often, women escaping violent relationships flee with next to nothing. Trying to start over with few financial resources is all but impossible. A new state law seeks to help by directing power companies and other utilities to waive deposit fees for 60 days for victims of domestic violence who flee their abusers.

The law, SB 1645, takes effect Jan. 1, 2016.

“Giving victims additional time to get their financial affairs in order removes one of the largest hurdles from them moving out on their own. Hopefully, now these victims will be able to move to a safe place faster than ever before,” said State Senator Steve Stadelman, who sponsored the legislation.

Other social and criminal justice reform laws approved in 2015 covered a wide range of concerns:
• The elimination of mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles, pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama
• Adding a list of factors that must be considered in sentencing juveniles, including the juvenile’s background and level of maturity (HB 2471)
• Expansion of the list of offenders who can petition the court to remove employment barriers if they can show rehabilitation and good conduct (SB 706)
• Requiring law enforcement to notify arrested foreign nationals of their right to have their consular officials notified (HB 1337)
• Raising the age by which minors who have committed the most serious crimes may be tried as an adult from 15 to 16 (HB 3718)
• Changing limits on prison sentences and who can be charged as a juvenile (SB 1560)
• Allowing being a victim of domestic violence to be a mitigating factor at sentencing (SB 209)
• Requiring the Department of Corrections to allow (and assist) inmates to apply for Medicaid coverage within 45 days of discharge (HB 3270)
• Modernizing the definition of sexual orientation in three anti-hate crime law to include actual or perceived heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality, as well as gender-related identity (HB 3930)
• Allowing the statute of limitations time period to pause when sexual assault evidence is being collected, submitted and analyzed (HB 0369)
• Authorizing a harsher sentence for a person convicted of a sexual crime against a person with a developmental disability or a person who was legally or professionally under their care (SB 207)
• Creating an affirmative defense to prostitution for victims of human trafficking; establishing several other new rules to help victims of trafficking in the court process (SB 1588)
• Allowing a court to use a service dog when taking testimony from a minor or person with a developmental disability in a sex offense case (SB 1389)