Senators support steps to reduce wrongful convictions in Illinois

Two state senators from opposite sides of the aisle said they believe Illinois can and should take steps to reduce the number and cost of wrongful convictions in Illinois, but noted police and lawmakers often work to impede progress, despite their best intentions.

State Sen. John Millner, a Carol Stream Republican and longtime Elmhurst police chief, and Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat and former Cook County prosecutor, were panelists at a Chicago Urban League and Better Government Association forum on wrongful convictions Tuesday in Chicago.

Both men sit on the Illinois Senate’s criminal law committee, with Raoul serving as chair and Millner as Republican spokesman.

The meeting stemmed from a seven-month study the Better Government Association released in July, which found 85 cases of wrongful conviction have cost Illinois taxpayers $214 million since 1976, with the bulk of the expenses occurring in the last 20 years.

The BGA study said in 95 percent of the cases examined, alleged government misconduct contributed to the wrongful convictions.

“It’s about the training,” Millner said. “Police officers want to get the bad guy off the street. They want to do it the right way. They’re going to do it to the best of their ability.”

According to the BGA study, statistics show that police and prosecutors often make mistakes. False confessions occurred in 33 cases, allegations of ineffective assistance of counsel occurred in 23 cases, and incorrect witness testimony took place in 30, the study said.

Millner said he advocated for legislation requiring police to complete additional training each year, but “police chiefs and investigators were against it.” With budget cuts and smaller forces, he said they worried they’d be cast in a bad light if they were unable to complete training.

Raoul sponsored legislation to abolish the death penalty in Illinois and said he cried the day it was signed.

“I was grateful, yet people would think that the work was done,” he said.

Given the state’s current budget situation, and focus on fiscal issues, Raoul said reforms are possible. “But we’ve got a limited window to do it. We’ve got to do it while this guy is still around,” he said of Millner, who is not seeking re-election in 2012.

The support of advocacy organizations, like the BGA, as well as constituents, have a place in that change, Raoul said.

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