Daily Herald Opinion: Tougher penalties for fleeing police could help stem dangerous, growing ‘epidemic’

If any legislation has a chance of gaining substantial bipartisan approval in the Illinois General Assembly, you would think it would be Senate Bill 1807.

Unfortunately, this legislation that aims to address what law enforcement authorities consider a dangerous epidemic of suspects fleeing police is not in a particularly promising position. The bill, sponsored by Downers Grove Republican Sen. John Curran has nine co-sponsors, all Republicans. Democrats control both chambers of the legislature, and the bill currently sits in the Assignments Committee with uncertain prospects for action.

So, we have to hope some in the majority party wake up and listen to the complaints and concerns of the police leaders in their home districts.

Like Naperville Police Chief Jason Arres, who told a press conference announcing the legislation earlier this month that fleeing cases have reached “a level of lawlessness I haven’t seen in my 23 years in this profession.”

Law enforcement authorities in other suburbs have been expressing similar complaints for years. Officials at the press conference said such cases in DuPage County alone have increased 151% since 2020.

Senate Bill 1807 aims to address the problem by increasing the penalty for fleeing police in a vehicle from the current misdemeanor to a Class 4 felony, bringing the possibility of a three-year prison sentence instead of just under a year in county jail. Cases that result in an injury would be bumped even higher to Class 3 with the potential for five years in prison.

Suspects fleeing police obviously know they’re in trouble, likely already for felony-level offenses, and some observers argue they also know that police will back off eventually when conditions become too risky. So, they have some built-in incentive to try to get away. But allowing a misdemeanor fleeing charge to be the least of their worries only gives them more reason to try their luck at escaping.

Even given the prudent reluctance of police to engage in long high-speed chases, those that occur are hazardous and often result in serious crashes.

“When someone flees from the police, they're not stopping for red lights. They're not stopping for stop signs. And they're certainly not obeying our speed limits,” Arres said.

“This not only puts motorists at heightened risk (of harm), this also puts pedestrians at heightened risk,” Curran added.

Without question, there is some point of judgment for police between simply allowing criminal suspects to speed away with no fear of a chase and pursuing them at high speeds through busy suburban roadways, with circumstances varying from the traffic and road conditions to the level of crime under suspicion. But the judgment of the offenders also needs some influences of its own, and the potential of adding another felony and more prison time to whatever penalties drivers already face surely can give them cause to consider restraint.

Let’s hope some Democrats, especially those in leadership, get on board with local law enforcement officials and take action on SB 1807 to provide that incentive.

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