On July 15, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, along with several other members of the Illinois General Assembly, gathered with exonerated individuals, as well as attorneys with the Bluhm Legal Clinic’s Center on Wrongful Convictions (CWC), as he signed four historic pieces of legislation into law in Thorne Auditorium. The new legislation addresses public safety and criminal justice reform measures in the state.
The ceremony was a culmination of the hard work and dedication of Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. “Illinois becomes the first state in the United States’ history to enact into law a measure that prohibits police from lying to children during interrogations,” said Laura Nirider, clinical professor of law and co-director of the CWC. Senate Bill 2122 officially prohibits law enforcement from using deceptive tactics against individuals under interrogation who are under 18. “It is fitting that Illinois leads the nation on this issue. Here and around the country, far too many innocent people have been coerced into confessing to crimes that they did not commit. In Illinois alone, we know of 100 wrongful convictions that have been based on false confessions, and in 31 of those cases the person that falsely confessed was a child.”
Nirider also acknowledged Rebecca Brown, policy director at the National Innocence Project, and Lauren Kaeseberg, legal director at the Illinois Innocence Project, whose dedication to exoneration work has contributed to the CWC’s success. “Today’s historic achievement has been made possible, due in large part, to their expertise and advocacy,” Nirider said.
The heart of the ceremony was Terrill Swift, an exoneree who spent more than 15 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. He was 17 when he was interrogated by Chicago PD. “This bill, I truly believe, could’ve saved my life,” Swift said. “Moving forward, I want to try and help and make sure this doesn’t happen again. We don’t need another Terrill Swift…this bill passing is a great step, but we still have so much work to do because there are so many brothers and sisters still there now.”
“Through individual cases and broader efforts of systemic reform, the Center on Wrongful Convictions in the Law School’s Bluhm Legal Clinic has been working on reform for over 20 years,” said Interim Dean James Speta. “The four bills being signed today represent milestones in criminal justice reform, and I would like to express my profound gratitude to the many, many individuals who made this possible, including State Senator [Robert] Peters, State Representative [Justin] Slaughter, Laura Nirider, and Terrill Swift. I am so very proud that Northwestern Law is a partner in this work.”
In addition to Senate Bill 2122, Governor Pritzker signed into law three other bills that represent steps towards justice reform in the state. According to the Illinois General Assembly website, SB 2129 “provides that, upon receipt of a petition for resentencing, the court may resentence the defendant in the same manner as if the offender had not previously been sentenced.” SB 0064 states that “anything said or done during or in preparation for a restorative justice practice is privileged and cannot be referred to or used in any civil, criminal, juvenile, or administrative proceeding unless the privilege is waived.” Lastly, House Bill 3587 creates the Resentencing Task Force, which will bring experts and stakeholders together to further reduce Illinois’ prison population.
“This is a moment when we get to mark, truly, one of the most joyous and important accomplishments for a fair and safe criminal justice system. And [it’s] something that should make people all across this state proud,” said Pritzker. “And while I may be the one signing the bills, these consequential pieces of legislation only reached my desk because of the fierce and unrelenting advocacy of so many who are standing here today and the sacrifices of generations of folks who came before us.”
Other speakers at the day’s event included Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, Illinois State Senator Robert Peters, Representative Justin Slaughter, Representative Kelly Cassidy, and Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton.