Safeguarding the Communities

As Governor Jim Edgar pledged to make Illinois a safer place by being smart as well as tough on crime. He led Illinois to pioneer background identification programs for gun purchases. Long before the Brady Bill became federal law, Edgar’s “Instant Check” system established a statewide data base that gun dealers must access before they can sell a firearm. He worked with advocates of the National Rifle Association to come together to disarm those with criminal or mental health records. By 1998, the database logged 1.2 million inquires and rejected more than 10,000 sales. The Governor also enhanced the truth in sentencing legislation in 1995 for convicted first-degree murderers. Child sex offenders were another target. He signed legislation requiring sex offenders to register with community law enforcement. And he imposed tougher prison sentences for those who sexually assault children under age 13.

All of us, ministers and teachers, law enforcement and community workers, parents and public officials must band together to point our youth in a positive direction.”

Edgar saw to it that police officers had the most sophisticated crime fighting equipment. A Chicago police officer shows the Governor new computer technology that was added to her squad car.

Edgar understood that state government does not always have the answers, but it can solve problems and be a catalyst for change.

In 1994, the Governor and his wife, Brenda, went to Roseland, a community on the south side of Chicago cursed by gangs and violence. They joined thousands determined to begin the daunting challenge of taking back their neighborhood. The launch of the “Just Do It” mentoring program was aimed at steering children away from gangs.

To help communities deal with those criminals who preyed on neighborhoods through gangs and drugs, the Governor sponsored sweeping anti-crime legislation. The death penalty awaits drug kingpins who order or plan murders. Mandatory sentences of 15 to 60 years target gang leaders in drug-dealing operations. Those convicted in drive-by murders now face the death penalty.

The Governor’s first major anti-crime initiative came in 1991 when he persuaded gun control advocates and the National Rifle Association to come together in agreement to disarm those with criminal or mental health records. Long before the Brady Bill became federal law, Edgar’s “instant check” system established an Illinois State Police database that gun dealers must access before they can sell a firearm. Through mid-1998, the database logged 1.2 million inquiries and rejected more than 10,000 sales due to felony convictions, mental health history, active arrest warrants and invalid firearm owner identification cards.

Child sex offenders were another Edgar target. He signed legislation requiring sex offenders to register with community law enforcement authorities. This registry gave the public the names, addresses and offenses of convicted sex offenders who move into their midst. Another move by Edgar imposed tougher prison sentences for those who sexually assault children under the age of 13 and for young offenders who commit murder. Edgar followed up with legislation in 1997 that keeps some violent sex offenders locked up even after their prison terms would normally end. It allows state mental health officials to hold sexual predators in a state prison for additional treatment until it is determined they no longer are dangerous.

As a legislator, Edgar had voted to restore the death penalty in Illinois and as Governor, he was an unwavering proponent of such punishment. He took seriously the responsibility of considering appeals for executive clemency and carefully reviewed each one that reached his desk.

Because of his strong support for capital punishment, some were caught by surprise when Edgar in 1996 commuted the death sentence of Guinevere Garcia to life imprisonment without the possibility for parole. Edgar said he had doubts about the sentence and could find no premeditation when Garcia fatally shot her estranged husband. He said the case was not typical of those that result in a death sentence.

While many thought the Governor should have invoked the death penalty, the Peoria Journal Star wrote, “Edgar said he wasn’t sure whether Garcia deserved to die, wasn’t sure if the penalty fit the crime. Because he couldn’t clear his own conscience, he let Garcia live. In the end, conscience won out, and so did the law. Both are welcome allegiances in politicians.”

Thousands of cells were added to the prison system to manage one of the fastest growing inmate populations in the nation.

During the Edgar administration, high-tech policing equipment became as much a part of law enforcement as a badge and squad car. The Governor meant for the Illinois State Police to receive the latest crime-fighting equipment.

In 1996, he opened the Forensic Science Center in Chicago, the largest accredited crime lab in the nation. Built and equipped for $30 million, it features automated fingerprint identification, DNA analysis and an automated ballistics system that traces spent cartridges to firearms. The center employs 200 technicians who handle lab work for 75,000 cases per year. Not only does the lab help prosecutors in court, it is linked with the University of Illinois at Chicago as a research and educational facility.

Edgar supported funding to begin the installation of computers in squad cars, giving troopers instant access to photographs, fingerprint files and other information. The state police also launched a computer database, the first of its kind, that allows police to monitor and help investigate gangs, drug dealers and other criminals. Another data system gave the criminal justice community access to fingerprints and electronic criminal history “rap” sheets.

As Governor, Edgar’s commitment to highway safety echoed his priority as Secretary of State when he led a drunk driving crackdown that received national recognition.

Since 1991, traffic fatalities in Illinois have decreased 12 percent, even though traffic volume has increased 17 percent. The number of people killed in alcohol-related crashes also declined. Credited were the increased use of safety belts and child safety seats, enforcement of speed limits by state police and local authorities, and cracking down on driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

While law enforcement responds directly to crime, Edgar also sought ways to prevent crimes. He oversaw funding to communities, schools and even the National Guard to develop youth programs against crime.

A National Guard initiative, suggested by an interagency group on gang crime convened by Edgar in 1992, offered kids an after-school alternative to gangs, drugs and violence. The youths learned fitness, teamwork, self-discipline, goal-setting and self-esteem. Called First Choice, the program equipped state armories in the Chicago area, Peoria and Springfield with exercise equipment donated by physical fitness companies.

Recognizing the prevalence of cigarettes and alcohol in high schools and junior high schools, Edgar assigned the Illinois Liquor Control Commission the job of educating retailers about curbing drunk driving and preventing illegal liquor and tobacco sales. More than 7,000 violators appeared before the commission in 1998 and forfeited $775,000 in fines, compared with only 200 cases and $22,000 in fines in 1991.

The number of inmates housed in state correctional facilities swelled by nearly 54 percent between 1991 and 1998, to more than 43,000.

When Edgar took office, Illinois’ adult prison population had grown 21 percent the prior year alone, the biggest increase in the nation. In all, 27,794 inmates were housed in space designed for just 19,000.

New prisons and cellhouses would take years to bring online, so Edgar continued and expanded double-celling inmates in one-man cells, experimented with alternative sentencing and increased the use of early-release time for well-behaved prisoners. He also sought the advice in 1992 of a special task force on prison crowding chaired by Anton Valukas, a former U.S. attorney.

The Illinois Task Force on Crime and Corrections posed solutions in 1993 and Edgar immediately embraced many of the group’s 26 recommendations. With the legislature’s help, some non-violent inmates could serve out their sentences on electronically monitored home detention or could shorten their sentences by a half day for every day spent in class, job training or drug abuse treatment programs. More inmates became eligible for boot camps.

While such measures reduced crowding, Edgar knew that new prisons would be necessary in the future. New prisons, cellhouses and work camps did follow, at the rate of one a year eventually, but obstacles delayed legislative support for their construction.

In 1995 and 1996, lawmakers shrugged off the Governor’s capital plan, including funds for prison construction, although they bragged to constituents about tough new crime legislation. For two years, House Democrats withheld the three-fifths majority needed to approve money for prisons. The system was strained to the breaking point.

Edgar, however, would not bow to such tactics. The administration contracted with private companies to build prisons now, promising to pay later. This provided 4,800 new cells, including a 2,256-bed medium security prison in Pinckneyville.

The Governor approved $556 million to add 13,000 beds to the system. Included was the 500-bed super maximum prison in Tamms, which opened in 1998 for the “baddest of the bad” prisoners of Illinois. Edgar also announced plans in 1998 to construct a $98 million, 1,000-bed maximum security facility, the state’s first since 1925.

Rather than having a parole system that merely monitored convicts after their release from prison, Edgar began the PreStart program to prevent parolees from returning to a life of crime when they hit the streets. As inmates approach a release date, they are counseled about drug abuse, HIV infection and AIDS, job training, parent and life skills and violence reduction. State-operated centers outside prisons provide mandatory classroom instruction and help newly released prisoners to find jobs.

The commander-in-chief of the state’s response to the Great Flood of ‘93, Edgar traveled to flood-affected areas on almost a daily basis to marshal state and federal resources and mobilize the National Guard and state workers.

Torrential rains swept the Midwest in the spring of 1993 and continued off and on for three months. More than 13,000 Illinoisans were forced to evacuate their homes. About a million acres of the state’s richest farmland stood underwater. Damage exceeded $1 billion.

What became known as the “Great Flood of ’93” proved to be the second worst weather-related disaster in U.S. history, trailing only Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The flood was responsible for 47 deaths and $15 billion to $20 billion in damage throughout the Midwest.

Although socked by a disaster of a magnitude never before experienced in the state, Illinoisans pulled themselves out of the muck and got about the business of recovery. Governor Edgar saluted their resolve in his 1994 State of the State address.
“1993 was a year of great stress and tragedy for thousands of our Illinois residents whose life savings and livelihoods were washed away in flooding unequaled in the 175-year history of this great state,” Edgar began. “But the outpouring of support, the selfless volunteer efforts and the unbridled enthusiasm shown by neighbors helping neighbors made me proud to be an Illinoisan.”

He had mounted an unprecedented response to the disaster through the Illinois Emergency Management Agency. All state agencies got one simple instruction do whatever is necessary to help.

The Department of Transportation marshaled crews to haul 200,000 tons of rock and sand to hold back the flood waters, to build temporary roads and to develop ferry landings. The
Department of Public Health and the Environmental Protection Agency assured residents had drinkable water and portable toilets. More than 5,000 National Guard troops, not to mention thousands of state inmates, worked side by side to pile nearly 10 million sandbags along threatened riverbanks and levees. The Department of Conservation rescued domestic and wild animals. State police assisted local law enforcement authorities with communications, patrols and rescue. The Department of Agriculture expedited grain and livestock shipments. The Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities provided counseling. The Historic Preservation Agency held workshops on how to repair water-damaged historic structures. The Department of Commerce and Community Affairs and the Illinois Development Finance Authority established low-interest loan programs for devastated businesses. The Department of Revenue granted tax extensions to families and businesses whose livelihoods were affected by the flood.

The Governor visited flood sites nearly every day, helped fill sandbags and lobbied President Bill Clinton for federal disaster aid. His efforts in Washington were successful and Illinois flood victims received $163 million in aid from the federal government.

During his administration, Edgar counts 49 gubernatorial disaster proclamations and 12 presidential declarations. In addition to the Great Flood of ’93, he addressed the 1991 tornado in the village of Lemont, the 1992 underground flood in Chicago’s loop business district, the 1995 flash flooding along the Illinois River, the 1996 tornadoes in Decatur and Ogden, the 1996 flash floods in 11 northern and northeastern counties and the 1997 basement flooding in Cook County.

Edgar speaks to a throng of people gathered in 1996 at Springfield’s Oak Ridge cemetery for the dedication of the Korean War Memorial (center rear), which remembers those Illinoisans who died during the so-called “forgotten war.”

Edgar was a staunch supporter of the 1.2 million veterans living in Illinois who had donned their country’s uniform. The Governor made sure Illinois could assist those soldiers, sailors, air force members and National Guard troops who served in World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War or the Persian Gulf War. Health care for aging and disabled veterans improved, as did job training and retraining for new employment, public and private.

More than a third of the state’s veterans will be topping the age of 70 by the year 2000. To meet the needs of this aging population, the Governor upgraded the state’s veterans homes. He also approved $3.9 million for constructing a new, 62-bed skilled nursing facility in Anna that opened in 1994 to serve the 71,000 veterans in southern Illinois. And, in 1998, the Governor budgeted $9.1 million for improvements to 12 buildings at the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy, which opened in 1887 and is recognized as one of the oldest and largest facilities of its type in the nation.

For the 20,000 Illinois veterans who served in the Persian Gulf War, Edgar approved legislation extending income and property tax payments and encouraged school boards to make whole the income lost by teachers deployed during the war.

The Korean War is often called “the forgotten war,” but in Illinois Edgar made sure the 1,743 Illinoisans who died during that conflict of the 1950s would be forever remembered. When private fund raising for a Korean War Memorial fell short of the projected cost, the Governor stepped in and authorized $450,000 in state funds for the project and signed legislation to create special Korean War veteran license plates to generate memorial money. On June 16, 1996, 43 years after the armistice was signed ending the war, Edgar dedicated the Korean War Memorial in Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery. The memorial is surrounded by 300 Korean Rose of Sharon trees donated by the people of Korea.

Illinois’ Army and Air National Guard units served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and Edgar personally greeted troops as they returned home. The Governor also deployed Illinois Guard units to three military operations in support of NATO peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia, Germany, Hungary, Poland and Macedonia. During the Great Flood of ’93, Edgar’s mobilization of National Guard troops to combat flooding along the Illinois and Mississippi rivers marked the longest and largest activation in state history.