by Laura Caldwell
I drove past the flat lands of middle Illinois, a law student in tow. On that trip en route to Springfield, I wasn’t too nervous, and to be frank, I wasn’t expecting much. I’d heard the stories about partisan politics and those that said people downstate were doing more panicking about the huge budget deficit than actually legislating. When we arrived and appeared before the criminal law committee of the Illinois House of Representatives, I found my presumptions entirely off base.
I was questioned by both Republicans and Dems. I'd come prepared with opening remarks, statistics about exonerees (people who were wrongfully convicted and later declared entirely innocent) and answers for what I assumed would be easy questions. Wrong. Representatives Howard, Wait, Flowers (who sat in for McAsey), Reboletti, Golar, Collins, and Sacia wanted to roll up their sleeves. They were compassionate toward exonerees, concerned about the budget ramifications, and very much wanting to understand the issues involved with both. We discussed how our society operates in a system where we demand that our police and state attorneys get the “bad guys” off the street. Since the system is run and based around humans, and since we are decidedly not perfect, mistakes will happen. Wrongful convictions will happen. What we need to do now as the society is address such the aftermath of such scenarios.
We stayed the night in Springfield and found that like attorney events and mystery writers conferences, lots of networking and actual work gets done at the bar. Again, senators and Representatives from both sides of the aisle made themselves available to me and my law student. They sought out information about exonerees. They brainstormed about how to get services without impacting the budget. They asked about the Life After Innocence program and how it worked. They wanted to know what we thought about other legislation they were considering. On its whole, Springfield was, quite simply, one of the most interesting and truly collaborative experiences I’ve seen in action.
As for our exoneree legislation, it passed the house by a vote of 93-17. On January 4, it will go before the Senate on a concurrence motion. We hope that Governor Quinn will sign the bill shortly after. Eventually, we want to get additional exoneree legislation passed, but what I’m most looking forward to now is Senator John Cullerton’s inauguration party. (Ellis, you’re buying beers afterwards, right? Or maybe we’ll hit up one of the Republicans).