Justice for Taxpayers

***Guest Column*** 

I recently filed House Bill 3096, which would create the Lincoln-Douglas Historic Tax Credit. If approved by the legislature and signed into law, Freeport would benefit from one more tool to entice developers to invest in Northwest Illinois. As of today the bill is in the Revenue & Finance Committee, I will do everything I can to move this bill along quickly.
Another bill that I filed was House Bill 3555, which is an amendment to the Illinois Unified Code of Corrections. The purpose of the bill is to save taxpayer dollars from being squandered on legal costs when the defendant has the means to pay for his or her own legal costs.

Drew Peterson was arrested, charged and convicted of murdering his wife. Most of us remember the media story surrounding the case. After Mr. Peterson was already incarcerated he was also charged with conspiracy to murder the State’s Attorney who had prosecuted him, so that brought about another trial.

For his second trial, the court appointed a private legal team to defend Mr. Peterson, and those legal fees totaled $264,000. This cost was born entirely by you and me – the Illinois taxpayers. The United States Constitution unequivocally grants anyone accused of a crime the right to an attorney. In fact, every arrest includes the reading of “Miranda warnings” (otherwise known as Miranda rights) which specifically details the arrestee’s right to obtain legal counsel.

In Drew Peterson’s case, he could very well afford to retain private counsel, but the state still stepped in to pay his legal bills. When the judge who oversaw the case was asked about how that had happened, Judge Richard Brown said, “If I were to tell the defense ‘you can’t spend any more,’ then in fact I think it could be said later the defendant wasn’t given a fair trial.”

That’s certainly a legitimate concern. The last thing we need is a mistrial that would result in more wasted tax dollars. But this is where I believe the Illinois General Assembly has an opportunity to right this wrong for future trials.

The text of H.B. 3555 reads: “If it is determined that the person is indigent and eligible for representation by the public defender, the expense of the prosecution shall be paid by the Department (of Corrections).” Under the new legislation, only those inmates who are found to be unable to pay private legal fees will be given representation by a public defender.

No one will lose legal representation as a result of this bill, but those who can afford to pay for their own representation will now be expected to do so. Given the nature of our current fiscal environment, it is imperative that we go line by line through our state expenditures. I believe that this bill will save the state millions – and it’s something that both sides of the aisle can agree on as a common sense reform.

In a statement released by the Governor’s office, Governor Rauner announced his support for the new law by saying, “Taxpayers are on the hook too easily for inmate legal bills… In a time when financial resources are tight across state government, there are better uses for the more than $200,000 the state is paying to defend Drew Peterson.”

If my bill is passed by the General Assembly and signed by the Governor it won’t solve our budget shortfalls or bring the stalemate to an end, but every step helps when trying to balance a budget. As we go line by line through our budget we should remember the words of our favorite debt-free proponent, Dave Ramsey: “A budget is telling your money where to go instead of wondering where it went.”

As always, you can reach me or Sally at 815-232-0774 or email us using the contact form on our website at www.repbrianstewart.com

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