“My bills will increase protections … ”
Let me stop you right there, because when someone promises increased protection, it’s fair to ask if they’re actually proposing is legislation to enhance penalties and hoping for a protective or preventive effect.
A textbook example is House Bills 1460 and 1461. Hose Minority Leader Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, introduced both plans to strengthen the punishment for people convicted of attacking human services employees.
McCombie’s heart certainly is in the right place. She has long fought on this front, taking inspiration from the 2017 death of Pamela Knight, a Department of Children and Family Services worker killed in Dixon while trying to take a child into protective custody. McCombie intensified efforts after the 2022 murder of Deirdre Silas while conducting a Sangamon County home visit.
“There are no shortage of issues we must address at DCFS, but ensuring the safety of the employees who work day and night to protect our most vulnerable is the top priority – and my legislation will help make that a reality,” McCombie said in a news release. “Pam Knight and Deidre Silas were killed in the line of duty, and more must be done so that tragedies like this don’t continue to happen.”
Good intentions notwithstanding, these bills alone can’t ensure safety. Both would make hurting a DCFS worker a Class 2 felony, “except if the battery causes great bodily harm or permanent disability or disfigurement to an individual, then a violation is a Class 1 felony.” HB 1460 also covers Department on Aging Adult Protective Services or Ombudsman workers.
The bills would join a long list of proposed and enacted legislation to strengthen punishment for violence based on a victim’s protected class. Almost always these concepts develop from sincere concern and yet the result is the same: they become effective tools for prosecutors after crimes are committed. Their utility as preventive measures is linked to the government’s ability to advertise.
Even without communicating specific distinctions between Class 2 and 3 felonies, most drivers are familiar with penalty enhancements for offenses committed in road work zones because the warning signs are ubiquitous. Of course, we know it’s wrong to drive over a highway construction crew, just as we know it’s wrong to punch a traffic cop, teacher, referee or social worker.
McCombie knows the distinction. She rightly celebrated (and co-sponsored) last year’s passage of Senate Bill 1486, which directly increases protection by letting front-line DCFS workers train to carry pepper spray while doing certain field work. That provides a tool, not a threat.
Reasonable parties can debate whether enhanced penalties treat victims equitably. But legislators will always be more effective when focused on measures directly addressing causes than attempts at mitigating effects.
• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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March 4, 2023 at 05:16AM