By James Kilgore, co-director of FirstFollowers Reentry Program
There is an orthodoxy that changing laws should be left in the hands of legislators, lawyers and policy experts. But our recent campaign around changing electronic monitoring (EM) laws in Illinois provides another clear example of why the voice and participation of impacted people adds a key dimension to the process of policy change. Though this legislation focused on the state’s use of EM after people had completed their sentences, there are real lessons for folks working on pretrial legislation.
In the spring of this year, two bills on electronic monitoring entered the Illinois state legislature, HB 1115 aiming to eliminate about 85% of the usage of EM for people who had completed their prison sentences, and HB 386 which would mandate the Illinois Department Of Correction to do something they had never done in 25 years of EM use: file an annual report that made statistical information publicly available. No state legislature has ever tackled the vagaries of EM regimes before. Ultimately, we had great success: HB 1115 passed out of committee and passed in the House, only to be stalled in the Senate. HB 386 passed unanimously in both the House and Senate.
Apart from a change of governor, two key building blocks contributed to our success. First, we were fortunate to be able to work with Representative Carol Ammons from Urbana, IL, who was resolutely dedicated to passing this legislation and willing to work with critically impacted folks as well as legal advocates to drive this forward. I had worked with Carol for about ten years, having joined with her in an anti-jail campaign in our community long before she was elected as the first Black state legislator in the central and southern part of the state.
The second key building block was the voice of the impacted. After my own experience of spending a year on an electronic monitor, I had spoken to dozens of people across the state and beyond. While mainstream opinion was still talking about EM as “better than jail,” virtually no one who had been on the monitor or had a loved one a monitor held that view.
A turning point was securing subject matter hearing in the House’s Criminal Justice Committee. When we began the hearing, the chairperson clearly did not know much about EM. We had two panels of impacted people and allies to educate him. I gave an outline of how EM worked in the Department of Corrections, how it impeded people and how little transparency there was about the use of this technology. I also stressed that this was an issue of racial justice, since 58% of Illinois’ prison population is Black, compared to 15% of the state’s population.
Chris Harrison, who spent a year on a monitor after 18 years in prison, gave examples of how it kept him from finding jobs, and that he found it “devastating.” Monica Cosby said she would rather have remained in prison (she did 20 years) than spend those 60 days on a monitor. Coco Davis revealed that her uncle was on a monitor after his release from prison even though he had stage four cancer. When he died just 63 days after coming home, the DOC took two weeks to come and cut the monitor off his leg. The crowning jewel in our argument was that the company profiting from this monitoring was the GEO Group, the world’s largest private prison operator. Illinois passed a law against private prisons in the early 1990s. Giving money to GEO Group via a side door of EM did not sit well with the legislators.
This hearing sparked interest in our bill, and our combination of passionate voices of the impacted and grounded research helped to build a coalition to drive it forward. We moved forward from there, drawing organizations and lawyers into the work. They helped us tweak the language in the bills and also added legitimacy to our claims when we went to lobby and hold meetings with legislators. We could not have done this without the wonderful work of dedicated lawyers and non-profit activists, but we kept those impacted front and center. They testified at every hearing, were part of every meeting and were the emotional driving force that kept us moving forward. Policy and legislation for social justice are about a lot more than technical expertise. Without the voice of those who have experienced the injustice directly, crafting legislation runs the risk of becoming a heartless exercise in compromise. Given the enormity of the problems of the criminal legal system, we need something much better than that.