Payton Raso and the “Jailhouse Snitch Bill”

Payton Raso at Commencement
Payton Raso at Commencement, May 11, 2019

My Work on the “Jailhouse Snitch Bill”

A Guest Post by Payton Raso, Recent UIS Graduate

Payton Raso majored in Political Science and History at UIS. During his time working with the Illinois Innocence Project, Payton played an active role in the passage of Senate Bill 1830 regarding the testimony of jailhouse informants. It is considered the strongest bills of its kind in the United States.

Payton graduated from UIS magna cum laude in May 2019. He will be attending the University of Iowa Law School in the fall. For now, he’s keeping his future options open but whatever he does in his career, his education was immeasurably enhanced by his experience with the Illinois Innocence Project and his perspective on the criminal justice has been forever changed.

This is Payton’s story.

A Role on the Policy Team

When I first joined the Illinois Innocence Project, I did case work, researching the requests of people who wanted help from the Project.

Payton with Illinois Innocence Project staff
Payton Raso with members of the Illinois Innocence staff

Because my degree is in Political Science, after a few months, I asked John Hanlon, Director of the Project, and Larry Golden, Founding Director, if I could join the Policy Team. This was when I started working on Senate Bill 1830, informally known as the “Jailhouse Snitch Bill.”

Back when Illinois had the death penalty, there was a special safeguard on jailhouse informant testimony to determine if the informants were reliable. When the Illinois Innocence Project first approached the legislature about this new bill, we weren’t proposing anything inflammatory. We just asked, Why don’t we have this same safeguard for other major cases—cases that would lead to a sentence of life in prison? That question led to this bill.

By the time I joined the Policy Team in 2017, the Senate had already passed Senate Bill 1830 unanimously.

A Hearing in the House Committee

My first policy experience was attending a 2018 hearing to decide if the House of Representatives would vote on the bill. At that time, Representative Sims out of Chicago (he is now Senator Sims) was the chair of the committee and the sponsor of the bill in the House.

When our turn finally came, James Kluppelberg, an exoneree, told the committee, “We need to fix this because this is taking away years of innocent people’s lives.” His testimony provided the emotional push to get the bill passed.

All right, we thought. We are good to go.

Payton Raso
Payton working in the offices of the Illinois Innocence Project at UIS

The Veto Session

Then we got a surprise veto from Governor Rauner, which meant we would have to take the bill through a veto session. That session became one of the most exciting experiences of my college career.

When we got to the Capitol for the veto session, I had been on the Policy Team for a year, and I was one of the few people who knew my way around. I was sent to Senator Hastings’ office, who had originally sponsored the bill in the Senate, to let him know we were there and ask if we should talk to anyone.

He recognized me right away and pointed a finger at me. “Are you my guy on this?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Then here,” and he handed me a piece of paper. “These are the people you need to talk to. Let me know if any of them give you trouble.”

So I got my assignment that day straight from Senator Hastings.

 

Payton Raso at the Capitol
Payton Payton Raso (standing) in the Illinois House and Senate chambers as part of Model Illinois Govt. simulation

Hectic Days at the Capitol

I spent most of that week talking with senators: “Hey, this came up a year ago. Here are some reasons you may have voted for it.” I also thank a lot of them for being friends of the Project. We have plenty of senators and representatives at the Capitol who are very involved in the Project.

Jim Reed was especially valuable to us. Jim is a lobbyist for the Illinois Education Association, and a great friend of the Project. He sees these veto sessions all the time, so he walked us through expectations, which senators or representatives to avoid—lots of strategy.

He also let us know when to back off. “You’ve done everything you can,” he said. “It’s time to sit and wait.”

We were in the Gallery, when the Senate passed the bill with a vote of 54-1. Senator Hastings turned around and gave us a salute. That was cool.

Then we turned to the House vote. We were concerned because we thought something must have caused Governor Rauner to think he could successfully veto the bill.

So I got my assignment that day straight from Senator Hastings.

 

Payton Raso
Payton speaking at the IIP 2018 Defenders of the Innocent Event

The House Vote

The day the bill passedis  the House, Representative Art Turner, our house sponsor, was arguing the bill inside the chamber. Outside, we were trying to catch every representative that walked in and out, attempting to convince them to vote our way.

There were lots of other people doing the same thing—a marijuana group, a disability rights advocacy group, four or five other people in matching t-shirts. Every time the bell rang, it meant they were voting on something, and we would all rush over to the board to see what bill it was.

Eventually, our bill came up, and we went up to the House gallery and just sat there, rocking back and forth, watching. The bill passed with 80 votes, so we had more votes this time around and very clearly overrode the veto.

This time, Representative Turner looked up from the floor and gave us a double thumbs up. For decorum, we could not clap, but you couldn’t mistake our reaction—Yessss.

A Unique and Special Opportunity

Working on this bill was a wonderful experience. The Project has ramped up its presence at the Capitol since the bill passed, and I’m still learning from Jim Reed. This spring, when he received the Project’s annual Defenders of the Innocent Award, it was my privilege to give him the award.

Jim Reed and Payton Raso
Payton presents Mr. Jim Reed with the Illinois Innocence Project’s annual Defenders of the Innocent Award in April 2019

When I joined the Policy Team, I thought I would do research like finding out the voting history of a senator. I never expected to be the person to talk to senators about a bill. I’m very glad I got to walk through the whole process. I would not have gotten this experience anywhere else.