A Step Toward Justice Delayed, We March On!

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Failure to vote on HB 2897 by the Illinois House of Representatives before the end of the spring session will delay the Cook County Drug Field Test Pilot Program. This initiative would have run for one year starting September 1, 2014 and could have saved the county millions by significantly reducing the amount of time pretrial defendants wait in Cook County Jail.

This was a final setback in what has been a hard legislative session. Uncertainties around the budget and the impending general election created an environment where many important matters, even uncontroversial ones like this pilot program, were not put to a vote by the House.

HB 2897, Senate Amendment 3 is an agreed upon bill after several months of negotiations, between Senator Don Harmon, members of the Reclaim Campaign and stakeholders from law enforcement in Cook County, aimed at shortening the time defendants wait in jail pending a preliminary hearing. The bill was voted on by the Senate and passed unanimously (55-0) on May 22, 2014.

What is a Preliminary Hearing?

Drug cases, more than any other cases, have the longest average wait time between arrest and preliminary hearing in Cook County. This is because the Cook County State’s Attorney waits to receive drug analysis results from the State Police Crime lab before determining probable cause on drug cases. No other county in the state waits on the crime lab and neither do comparable jurisdictions like New York or Philadelphia. Instead, they are using results produced by drug analysis field tests to hold preliminary hearings much quicker than Cook County.

HB 2897 would create a pilot program to implement field tests in two designated areas of Chicago. In this pilot, drugs would be tested and weighed at local police stations. The results would then be forwarded to the Cook County State’s Attorney who would use the results to make a probable cause determination. This would likely lead to preliminary hearings for drug cases in Cook County happening in 8-10 days rather than 3-4 weeks. Success of the pilot is an important first step towards achieving the Reclaim Campaign goal of lowering the amount of time a person can be held before a preliminary hearing from 30 days to 10 days.

Unfortunately, Cook County will have to wait to see if field testing will prevent unnecessary jail days and save millions. Despite the efforts of advocates, and representatives who signed on as sponsors and made requests to move the bill to the floor, the House adjourned without voting on HB 2897.

However, this delay will not stop our march towards justice. Dr. King once said “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” 

In just over six months, the Reclaim Campaign has brought the issue of preliminary hearing wait times to light. Our lobby days and in district visits garnered bipartisan support from 20 senators and 16 representatives who signed on as co-sponsors to the preliminary hearings and field testing legislations. Because of your advocacy, Cook County law enforcement stakeholders now acknowledge that this is an issue that must be addressed.

In the coming weeks and months the Reclaim Campaign will pursue various options to continue our work in reducing the time between arrest and preliminary hearing. These options may include working with stakeholders to do the pilot program without the legislation and/or working to pass HB 2897 during veto session in the fall.

As we regroup and reflect, we want to acknowledge Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice who researched and prepared the memo on preliminary hearings, and provide technical support to the Reclaim Campaign. We also thank the chief sponsors, Senator Harmon and Representative Willis, for their work championing the preliminary hearings and field testing legislations.

Finally, we want to thank you, the dedicated individuals whose tireless exertions and passionate concern have made this issue visible to legislators and law enforcement in Cook County. As we prepare to take the next step toward the goal of justice, we’re glad we get to take it with you by our side.