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Column

Governor says no to jailhouse snitch reforms

Measure could have shed light on shady informant dealings

Scott Reeder
Scott Reeder

Whose word is less reliable, a jailhouse snitch’s or Gov. Bruce Rauner’s?

That’s a question I have been asking myself these past 2 weeks.

You’ll remember that the governor ran 4 years ago on a platform of free-market capitalism and criminal justice reform. Some cynics, at the time, questioned his sincerity. Was he just trying to woo African-American lawmakers to support some of his economic policies by promising them criminal justice reform in return?

If so, it would be pretty contemptible. African-Americans are unfairly and disproportionately affected by law enforcement.

A Brookings Institution study found that blacks are 3.6 times more likely than whites to be arrested for selling drugs, and 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for possessing them. But the drug usage rates between the two races are identical, and whites are 32 percent more likely than blacks to sell drugs.

But it gets worse. Although black people account for only 13 percent of the U.S. population, 46 percent of exonerees are African-American, according to Maurice Possley, senior researcher for the National Registry of Exonerations. Think about that. When the government sends the wrong person to prison, five out of 10 times their skin is black.

And according to John Hanlon, executive director of the Illinois Innocence Project, a top reason for wrongful convictions in Illinois is jailhouse informants who lie.

It works like this, someone is in a county jail awaiting trial and a cellmate or other inmate comes forward and tells the prosecutor handling that person’s case that he heard the accused admit to committing the crime.

And since jails aren’t usually filled with Good Samaritans willing to testify just because it’s the “right thing” to do, they usually want something in return for their future testimony, such as leniency in their own case. And prosecutors give it.

A basic rule of economics is, if you create an incentive, people will respond to it. The current system gives inmates an enticement to commit perjury.

The Legislature passed a bipartisan measure, Senate Bill 1830, that requires that a hearing be held to determine the reliability of a jailhouse informant before the person’s testimony is admitted in a trial. Also, prosecutors would have to disclose to defense attorneys any information obtained through informants within 30 days and whether any deals were made to obtain the information.

Sounds like a reasonable solution to a pernicious problem.

But earlier this month, Rauner vetoed the bill.

It was a curious move by the state’s chief executive. After all, it was jointly drafted by the Innocence Project and the Illinois State’s Attorney’s Association. And it received bipartisan support in the General Assembly.

Rauner said in his veto message that such rules already exist in Illinois death penalty cases.

I hate to break it to you, Governor, but Illinois no longer has the death penalty.

So, any laws regarding it are, well, meaningless.

It makes one wonder if his campaign rhetoric about criminal justice reform was sincere or just another cynical political ploy.

Note to readers: Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist. He works as a freelance reporter in the Springfield area and produces the podcast Suspect Convictions.

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