PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — As public safety reform is set to take hold, complaints continue about Gov. JB Pritzker’s choice to commute sentences of violent criminals.

House Minority Leader Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs) held a press conference Tuesday to discuss clemency and sentence commutation of prisoners, especially those who are convicted of harming or killing police officers. He was joined by Chicago Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara and former Chicago Police Department Officer Robert Mizera.

Robert Mizera said he was shot and injured by a man named Kensley Hawkins in 1980. Hawkins, later convicted of a separate murder, was sentenced to nearly 100 years in prison. However, through efforts by his attorneys, the Illinois Prison Project, and the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, Hawkins was granted a commuted sentence by Pritzker last year. He was released from prison in April 2021.

Durkin called Hawkins’ early release “an attack on police officers,” which he blamed on the Governor and his appointed Prisoner Review Board.

Chicago FOP President Catanzara blamed this and other sentence commutations for what he called an increase in violent crime and a lack of trust in police.

“If an officer cannot get justice, and their families cannot get justice, what does the average person think is going to happen to the monsters that murder their loved ones?” asked Catanzara.

Durkin and both officers also warned of the Democratic public safety reform package, called the SAFE-T Act, parts of which go into effect at the beginning of July. Republicans have said since the act’s passage that the bill will reduce police numbers, increase crime, and provide more freedom for criminals. The act does not do this.

Gov. Pritzker’s office responded to the press conference:

The leader of the Republican Party standing with a racist zealot spewing lie after lie while using racist language like “savages” is unfortunately the new norm. If Leader Durkin truly cared about making our state a safer place to live, he would have voted to provide funding for more Illinois State Troopers, to build and staff a new crime lab to process evidence, and expand violence interruption programs. While Leader Durkin continues to lie about what the criminal justice reform bill does, advocates for survivors who worked on the law say “it increases safety for survivors.” Gov. Pritzker is focused on solutions, not tired talking points.

Office of Governor JB Pritzker

The Illinois Prison Project offered further clarification on Mr. Hawkins’ case.

It’s no surprise proponents of failed, carceral policies would rather resort to racist dog whistles and political grandstanding than engage with substantive, evidence-based solutions that actually make our communities safer. Mr. Hawkins was convicted under the controversial theory of accountability, a legal doctrine that allows for a person to be convicted of a crime they not only didn’t commit but also didn’t plan, agree, or intend to commit, and at which they were not even present.

Shawn Mulcahy, Illinois Prison Project Communications Director

Additionally, advocates dispute the claim made at the press conference that the onset of the SAFE-T Act would increase violent criminals on the streets by removing Illinois’ cash bail system.

Contrary to the false arguments advanced by opponents, the new pretrial system will not simply release every person arrested for a crime. For example, it will ensure people held for forcible felonies, including domestic or sexual violence, are kept for up to 48 hours. It will give the state time to gather information about whether someone poses a threat to others. It is a welcome reform to the current practice of releasing people who can pay the bond with minimal regard for the threat they may pose to survivors. 

Madeleine Behr and Amanda Pyron, advocates for the SAFE-T Act

Catanzara’s participation in the press conference was also rebuffed by the Governor’s office, as he has been the subject of 50 allegations of excessive force, domestic abuse, conduct unbecoming an officer, and other violations, as well as at least five long-term suspensions from his position.