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State Lawmakers Seek To Reduce Prison Sentences For Victims Of Domestic, Gender-Based Violence Who Commit Crimes Under Duress

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Victims of domestic violence, rape, and human trafficking have been locked up for crimes that advocates say they committed under duress or by force – and now, a group of Illinois lawmakers want to tighten a law that could help reduce their prison sentences.

As CBS 2 Political Investigator Dana Kozlov reported those pushing the new law say the old law is failing some survivors. They say the law will help give victims of gender-based violence – not just domestic violence – a second chance.

Sandra Brown spent 22 years behind bars for a domestic fight over a gun that left someone dead.

"It took a lot of healing," Brown told Kozlov in a Zoom interview. "It took a lot of forgiveness."

When Brown was sentenced, certain circumstances about the incident and past abuse weren't considered.

"It's almost like being retraumatized all over again," she said.

Brown was released last month. It was an emotional reunion with her 30-year-old son, who was only 8 when she went to prison.

She is now one of a group of survivors, advocates, and lawmakers fighting to modify a 2016 law that allows incarcerated domestic violence victims to ask a judge for a shorter sentence.

"I wasn't being implemented in a way we intended," said Illinois state Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago).

Cassidy said that includes the issue of who is allowed to file for such sentencing relief. The new version would allow victims a chance at a shorter sentence. It would also allow more evidence of domestic violence being introduced.

"It left a lot of ambiguity, so that there are survivors who have filed who are survivors of domestic violence, of rape, of human trafficking – and they are languishing in prison," said Dr. Alexis Mansfield, senior adviser for the Women's Justice Institute.

But supporters stress this is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Like the case of Nancy Rish – convicted for a having a part in a 1987 kidnapping and murder, but released early this month because of the 2016 law – this new bill would not erase convictions, but give weight to how trauma impacts actions.

"We really should be acknowledging that there is a difference between participating willingly and unwillingly," said Rep. Cassidy.

Rep. Cassidy said a couple of groups have voiced opposition to this bill, but it has passed out of committee. Rep. Cassidy said the bill has a lot of support, and hopes to call it for a full state House vote next week.

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