Chicago Sun-Times. February 21, 2023.

Editorial: Don’t sweep up innocent people with crime-fighting automated license plate readers

The Illinois Legislature needs to get some rules in place to protect people from unnecessary surveillance.

Eleven years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police need a warrant before they surreptitiously slip a GPS tracking device onto someone’s car.

But who needs a GPS tracking device these days? Police all around the country can track cars through high-definition automated license plate readers mounted alongside roads that do the same job. The license plate readers also are mounted on police cars. The readers record images of license plates and can deftly track vehicles as they pass one license plate reader after another. There’s no need for going through the pesky process of obtaining a warrant.

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The growing surveillance network is legal, but it also seems to violate the spirit of the Supreme Court ruling.

The Illinois Legislature needs to get some rules in place to protect innocent people from unnecessary surveillance.

Cutting down on crime, but…

License plate readers can be an effective crime-fighting tool. When a crime occurs, police can check license plate images to see which cars were in the area. We’re told the Illinois State Police, who in April installed 56 additional license plate readers along Chicago expressways, are pleased with how much the readers have helped cut down on crime. The readers also are a boon for police departments struggling with personnel cuts.

If a license plate reader helped you get your stolen car back or tracked the person who sawed off your catalytic converter, you’d think the system was pretty cool.

But such a vast storehouse of information threatens to give authorities the ability to track innocent citizens to see if they went to protests, a church, a bar, a union meeting, a cancer treatment center, a political protest or a therapist.

Some systems allow police to input information provided by a witness, such as a car’s vehicle make, color or, say, a roof rack, and see if a car meeting that description was in a particular area. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, automated readers scan billions of license plates across the country every year.

And it’s not just police. Private groups on the lookout for porch pirates, crime suspects or reckless drivers can install cameras that feed into the police data base. Businesses can set up their own networks linked to police. In Alabama, Troy University installed license plate readers this month at all campus entrances and exits that alert campus police when registered sex offenders or those with felony warrants show up. Too bad if you borrowed the wrong person’s car, even that of a relative.

Innocent people also might be caught up in the surveillance web if the system makes mistakes through either inaccurate reads or faulty “hot lists” or criminal suspects.

Laws already in 16 other states

Most recently, the Des Plaines City Council was scheduled Tuesday evening to discuss buying 10 cameras from Flock Safety, which says it has more than 2,000 law enforcement customers. That would add Des Plaines to a growing network including other suburbs, the State Police and the Chicago Police. Because the networks can be linked, even if one police department puts privacy rules in place, tracking data can be accessed through a different community with less stringent — or no — standards.

It’s possible to have a network that is effective in catching criminals without excessively invading privacy. Regulations should limit which databases can be compared with numbers collected by cameras, stipulate how long authorities can retain the data, spell out who can access the data and require safeguards from hacking. There also should be sensible rules about how the data is used by law enforcement.

At least 16 states have laws addressing the use of license plate readers or the data they collect, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. For example, New Hampshire requires law enforcement to delete data captured by license plate readers within three minutes if the data are not part of an investigation. That might not be a solution that works for every state, but every state should have its own sensible rules in place.

Automated license plate readers are probably here to stay. The Legislature needs to ensure they are used wisely.

Chicago Tribune. February 21, 2023.

Editorial: Crime and cover-up at a downstate mental health facility. Gov. Pritzker, it’s time to act.

The patients at Choate Mental Health and Development Center in downstate Anna live with developmental disabilities and mental illness, and need compassionate, attentive care. How can it be that, for nearly two decades, Choate has been known not for compassion, but for scandal, criminal conduct by employees and a history of covering up abuse and crimes.

Last week, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he would consider shutting down Choate if the facility doesn’t fix what’s wrong. His remarks came on the heels of recent reporting from Capitol News Illinois, ProPublica and Lee Enterprises about the mistreatment of Choate residents by some of the facility’s staff members.

Pritzker said “if the problems can’t be fully addressed, then we ought to close it down.”

We’re glad Pritzker is weighing in, but the problems at Choate raise a bigger issue. Choate isn’t the governor’s only social services dilemma. We have written before about continued troubles at the state’s Department of Children and Family Services, including the long list of contempt citations issued to the agency’s director, Marc Smith, for failing to ensure that the agency finds suitable placements for children in its care. Pritzker has also drawn criticism for the Illinois Department of Public Health’s inability to properly respond to a COVID-19 outbreak at a state-run veterans home in downstate LaSalle that resulted in the deaths of 39 residents.

Gov. Pritzker, you have a social services problem and you need to tackle it.

Choate’s troubles shouldn’t come as a surprise to Pritzker. When he took office in 2019, the facility’s history of criminal conduct by staff and mistreatment of residents was already notorious. That history goes as far back as 1997, when the Tribune wrote about horrific patient abuse that included the case of one resident who had undergone a colostomy because of a gang rape, and had been repeatedly punished by Choate staff for urinary and fecal incontinence.

In 2005, a group that advocates for the disabled, Equip for Equality, issued a report calling for Choate’s shutdown because the facility had failed to prevent the deaths of two residents and injuries to others, and because Choate relied too heavily on physically restraining residents. After that report, the Justice Department stepped in and concluded in 2009 that Choate was not adequately protecting residents from harm, and had a “critical lack of oversight and supervision.”

Pritzker can’t be blamed for most of Choate’s troubled history, but he’s governor now — and there’s scant evidence that anything has changed.

Choate workers have been criminally charged 14 times since Pritzker has been governor. The accusations have ranged from the physical abuse of residents to obstructing official probes and lying to investigators. In one case, a resident allegedly was forced to drink a cup of hot sauce. Separately, the inspector general for the Illinois Department of Human Services has compiled 41 reports of other incidents of neglect and mistreatment. In one case, a staffer punched a resident hard enough to break that person’s ribs. The inspector general also found that some individuals living at Choate were required to search their own feces for objects they may have swallowed.

It’s true that past administrations did little or nothing to intervene at Choate. But the abuse has continued on Pritzker’s watch, and he can no longer delay strong, decisive action.

Of course, shutting down Choate is a first step. That should happen as soon as its residents can be placed elsewhere, in facilities that have a far more humane approach to treatment and care.

But that’s just a start.

One enduring aspect to the legacy of neglect at Choate is that it has been perpetuated by a code of silence among workers there. The problem wasn’t just the abuse — it was the cover-up of the abuse.

Illinois law requires that workers cited for abuse or egregious neglect are entered into the state Department of Public Health’s Health Care Worker Registry. That helps keep those workers from getting other jobs in health care settings where they would again be working with vulnerable individuals.

But that law doesn’t apply to workers who witness abuse and fail to report it. It should. State lawmakers need to amend the law so that workers such as those at Choate who looked the other way also aren’t allowed to work in similar settings elsewhere.

Also, there’s a longer-term type of reform that should be seriously weighed. While much of the rest of the country has been moving away from placing individuals with developmental disabilities in large, state-run facilities, Illinois is an outlier. Over the years, studies have consistently shown that smaller, more integrated residential settings produce better outcomes for these individuals.

“Over the past half century, we have learned that large institutions do not promote positive outcomes … and limit community interaction and involvement for some of our most vulnerable citizens,” according to a 2015 paper co-authored by the Association of University Centers on Disabilities and the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. It may take time for Illinois to move in that direction, but given the history at Choate and other facilities like it, state leaders should think hard about doing so.

We agree with Pritzker when he says social services were underfunded in the past. But individuals vulnerable to future abuse or neglect, whether it’s at Choate or, in the case of state wards, at DCFS facilities, aren’t helped by deflecting blame.

They deserve better. They deserve solutions. And it’s now up to Pritzker to deliver those solutions.

Champaign News-Gazette. February 24, 2023.

Editorial: Corrupt former politicians still collecting state pensions

Don’t expect a notoriously uninterested Legislature to close these loopholes.

Illinoisans have been told for years that, as a general proposition, elected officials convicted in corruption cases forfeit their public pensions.

That is, in fact, sometimes the case. Former Govs. George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich were stripped of their pensions following their corruption convictions and imprisonments. That’ll happen to former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan if he’s found guilty when he goes to trial next year in the Commonwealth Edison bribery conspiracy case.

But, as with pretty much everything else in this state, it’s important to delve into the details of each corruption case, because things are not always as they appear to be.

WBEZ public radio in Chicago recently took a look behind the curtain and found that the state has sent out “nearly $2 million in state retirement checks” that continue to go to “a mix of federally charged, convicted and self-admitted felons who once served under the Capitol dome in Springfield” or their family members.

Two shocking examples are former state Sen. Terry Link of Vernon Hills and the late state Sen. Martin Sandoval of Chicago.

Link pleaded guilty to federal income-tax evasion. He acknowledged using money from his campaign fund and not paying taxes on it over a four-year period. (Incidentally, this is the same guy who voted to raise taxes on the rest of us.)

Sandoval pleaded guilty to accepting bribes and was scheduled to be an important government witness when he died. His wife collects his pension.

Link, Sandoval and others are collecting pension because, as WBEZ explained, the General Assembly System Retirement Board, acting on the advice of Attorney General Kwame Raoul, found that they were entitled to the pensions because their corrupt acts were not related to their work as public officials.

That explanation, on its face, is ridiculous. If Link wasn’t a public official, he wouldn’t have had a campaign fund to use as a personal piggy bank. If Sandoval hadn’t been a member of the Illinois Senate, he wouldn’t have been in a position to take bribes to see that favor-seekers got what they wanted from local and state governments.

But even assuming those pretexts were not in play, it’s outrageous that those who betray the public trust continue to be subsidized by the taxpayers after they’ve been forced out of public life in shame.

For example, WBEZ reported that Link, who left office in 2020, has collected “$200,000 and counting.”

It goes without saying that any rules this lax or easily subject to misinterpretation need to be rewritten in a way that holds all public officials responsible on the corruption issue.

The question, of course, is whether members of the Illinois House and Senate who are notoriously uninterested in adopting real ethics rules will have the initiative to deal with the pension issue in a sensible way.

One can always hope, of course, that legislators will be shamed into taking action. But hope that Illinois legislators will do the right thing when it comes to protecting their financial self-interest hasn’t gotten much done in the past.

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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