Restoring Justice Act would give less time to Illinoisans when their offense becomes less of a crime

Restoring Justice Act would give less time to Illinoisans when their offense becomes less of a crime

As Illinois works to decriminalize minor offenses, the Restoring Justice Act would adjust sentences for past offenders.

When state law changes to reduce the penalty for certain offenses, those who’ve already been charged or convicted are stuck with the sentences called for under the outdated statute.

State lawmakers know that is unfair. On Feb. 4, state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, introduced House Bill 2039 to help Illinoisans see sentences retroactively fixed when the state reforms its criminal justice system. The bill could save tax dollars and help ex-offenders avoid returning to crime.

HB 2039 is also known as the Restoring Justice Act. When the state decriminalizes or lessens the penalty for an offense, the bill would allow a person already convicted of that offense to petition the courts for resentencing. The courts would review each petition, with judges exercising discretion to cut a petitioner’s sentence. 

One example of a major reform that relaxed criminal penalties was P.A. 99-0697, which decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana and became law in July 2016. Prior to decriminalization, the Cannabis Control Act made possession of up to 2.5 grams of marijuana, enough for five thin joints, a Class C misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail. Possession of 2.5 to 10 grams was a Class B misdemeanor, and punishable by up to six months in jail. The law for possession of less than 10 grams now imposes a fine of $100 to $200, which is a civil penalty and not a criminal conviction.

After the new law passed, those convicted of marijuana possession prior to P.A. 99-0697 were still required to serve the harsher sentences dictated by the old law. Their sentences stood, even though the state decided their punishment no longer fit the crime.

As of June 30, 2016, 445 people were serving prison sentences in Illinois for violating the Cannabis Control Act, while 520 were on parole for it.

A reasonable reduction in nonviolent offenders’ sentences would push the state toward reducing the high cost of incarceration and the consequences of unnecessarily increasing a person’s exposure to criminal influences. A 2018 report found that recidivism – or reoffending after serving time – will cost Illinois more than $13 billion over the next five years.

The Restoring Justice Act could help improve public safety and the state economy, but more importantly it could fix the injustice of a sentence being determined by the year in which a hearing was held.

State lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have made significant advances toward a fairer, more effective criminal justice system. In August 2018, a pair of bills expanded criminal record sealing eligibility for non-violent ex-offenders and expungement of criminal records for juveniles.

HB 2039 follows a similar bill filed last year by state Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, which would have helped Illinoisans expunge cannabis offenses added to their criminal records prior to decriminalization. Unfortunately, that bill died in the Illinois Senate after passing the House.

State lawmakers should build on last year’s momentum, pass the Restoring Justice Act and Gov. J.B. Pritzker should sign it. It would help make Illinois’ criminal justice system more just.

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