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  • New legislative bill seeks to give municipalities the option to file bankruptcy

    In 2013, Detroit became the largest American city to file bankruptcy. This was one of the more highly publicized municipal bankruptcies to occur recently, but it was far from the only one. As The Chicago Tribune reports, 36 other municipalities have filed bankruptcy since 2010. Here in Illinois, many municipalities face similar financial strain but lack authorization to file bankruptcy. However, a new bill could make Chapter 9 bankruptcy available to these communities.

    Chapter 9 bankruptcy allows municipalities to restructure debt after all other financial options have been exhausted. Municipalities cannot discharge existing obligations through bankruptcy, but some liabilities may be reduced. During Chapter 9 reorganization, creditors are prohibited from seizing control of the municipality or selling municipal assets to pay down debt. Reorganization can only proceed with the approval of a bankruptcy judge. However, these judges cannot explicitly dictate the terms of the reorganization.

    Supporters of the new bill believe bankruptcy may be the most reasonable option for municipalities struggling to keep up with pensions and general debt. Many of these municipalities face increased expenses, dampened revenue and reduced funding from state income taxes. In some Illinois cities, including Springfield and Peoria, authorities have been forced to increase taxes and fees to cover pension costs and other necessary expenses. Lawmakers worry that taxpayers in these municipalities are receiving fewer needed services even as overall debt grows.

    Breaking the debt cycle can be difficult for many municipalities. As an example, outstanding pension and bond debts in Chicago now exceed $33 billion. Due to these growing liabilities, two agencies have recently downgraded the rating on the city’s debt. The reduced rating will result in greater interest rates on current debt as well as future liabilities. This may accelerate the accumulation of overall debt by diverting more payments from principal loan balances to loan interest.

    Although municipal debt represents a growing issue, many lawmakers maintain that letting municipalities file bankruptcy will only give rise to more problems. The new bill has drawn criticism because it could lead to significant reductions of police and firefighter pensions. Opponents of the bill also worry that filing bankruptcy may prevent a municipality from accessing needed credit in the future.

    Some lawmakers have suggested alternatives to allowing municipalities to file bankruptcy. One potential solution is the creation of an overseeing authority that could work with municipalities to manage debt through other measures. For cities certified as financially distressed cities, requesting state assistance under the Financially Distressed Cities Law is another option. This assistance may take the form of loans, aid with financial planning or other measures that enable the city to regain solvency.

  • Chicago drivers owe $1.5 billion in driving ticket fines

    At some point most drivers in Chicago have received tickets for parking violations, speeding or red light running. Every year, the city issues about 2.5 million parking tickets and thousands more speed or red light camera tickets, according to local news source DNAinfo. These tickets generate significant amounts of revenue, but collecting this money has proven difficult. According to a recent report, traffic ticket debt in Chicago has reached $1.5 billion, and an additional $1 million of debt accrues each week.

    Chicago motorists currently owe about $1.3 billion in parking tickets, which represent the leading contributor to the overall debt. Red light camera and speed camera tickets respectively account for another $205 million and $27 million of debt. To address this growing problem, Chicago has implemented a payment plan program for people who might struggle to pay tickets due to financial issues. This measure has had limited success, however. The number of people who follow their payment plans is significantly lower than the number of people who default.

    The city’s high level of debt may partly reflect the absence of a statute of limitations for traffic citations. About 70 percent of Chicago’s current debt accumulated prior to 2011, and some unpaid tickets were reportedly issued as long as 20 years ago. Chicago has collected some of this debt by intercepting tax refunds from people with outstanding tickets. However, the repayment of the old debt may be unlikely, since many ticket recipients may have relocated or passed away.

    Data from other cities suggests that stronger sanctions or enforcement methods could reduce traffic ticket debt. Chicago has more traffic ticket debt than New York City and Los Angeles combined, even though both cities issue more tickets on a yearly basis. This discrepancy may be due to differences in the ways the cities address unpaid debt. In Los Angeles, drivers must pay all debt before they can register their vehicles each year. In New York City, authorities can boot a driver’s vehicle once a ticket has been outstanding for 100 days. The implementation of either measure could help lower total outstanding debt in Chicago.

    Changes to current automated enforcement programs might also ease traffic ticket debt. Drivers have contended that Chicago’s speed and red light camera programs violate their rights to due process and issue tickets when violations have not even occurred. Consequently, many motorists have contested camera tickets, refused to pay fines or even taken legal action against the city. Measures to improve the accuracy of the program or the ticket review process could result in more drivers paying their fines, rather than challenging them.

  • Campus rape cases can be difficult to prove

    Campus rape has become a national concern in recent years, as high-profile cases at various schools have highlighted the extent of this problem. One study suggests that as many as one in five women fall victim to sexual assault or attempted sexual assault at some point during college. Unfortunately, these victims often face significant challenges in pursuing justice or even proving rape occurred.

    Frequently, campus rape cases come down to “he said, she said” evidence. In many of these cases, there are no witnesses aside from the people who were directly involved. When these individuals were acquaintances or friends before the sexual assault, victims may have trouble proving they did not consent to sexual activity. This may especially be true when a victim and attacker have had past sexual relations or when a victim withdraws consent during sexual activity.

    A recent case at the University of Illinois Chicago illustrates this issue. A woman alleges that she was raped after consensual activity with a “friend with benefits” crossed the line. According to the man, the two were acting out a scene from “50 Shades of Grey.” At one point, the man ordered the woman to resist him more and struck her forcefully with a belt. The woman states that she became uncomfortable and started legitimately resisting and telling the man to stop. The man maintains that they were role-playing the entire time. During a preliminary hearing, a judge determined the case lacked probable cause and dropped the charges against the man.

    Unfortunately, victims of campus rape may also face other barriers to proving rape occurred. For many victims, the way the brain responds to trauma can be a handicap. Rape victims may have trouble giving linear accounts or remembering the incident at all, and this problem may be exacerbated in attacks involving intoxication. This memory failure occurs because the brain encodes emotions and sensations, rather than narratives, during traumatic events. Withdrawal is also a common response to trauma. Consequently, when describing a rape later, victims often display a flat affect. These responses may undermine a victim’s apparent credibility.

    The National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women estimates just 2 to 8 percent of rape charges are false. However, the accounts of campus rape victims are frequently met with skepticism. Authorities may view shaky memories or a flat demeanor as signs that allegations of rape are fabricated. When victims report rape, authorities often question or attack any contradictions or gaps in the accounts that victims give. Sadly, many victims may hesitate to come forward, knowing they may be re-victimized during police interviews or judicial proceedings.

  • Robot competitions fuel Illinois kids’ interests in robotics

    Robotics has rapidly evolved from a more specialized and costly branch of technology into a field with countless practical applications. This change has helped create numerous opportunities for people in Illinois to pursue personal interests in robotics. Students, in particular, have benefitted from various new ways to learn about robotics, from classes to club participation. A recent competition held in Chicago gave middle and high school students a chance to gain direct experience producing and working with robotics.

     

    Over 300 students participated in the FIRST Tech Challenge Illinois Championship Tournament. The 32 competing teams prepared for the event by spending six months designing and building robots to take part in matches during the tournament. In each match, the robots were tasked with navigating a small arena to pick up balls and place them in cylinders. Each match began with the robots operating autonomously, and then students were permitted to take control of the robots to finish the match.

     

    In addition to giving students more exposure to robotics, the event emphasized skills that are beneficial for people working in the field of robotics, such as teamwork. Two teams were paired to compete against two other teams during each match, and judges evaluated how well the teams cooperated. When assigning awards, judges considered the amount of time that each team dedicated to volunteering and helping other teams. The competition’s top award was based on the robot’s performance as well as the team’s demonstrated professionalism and volunteerism.

     

    This event was structured as a competition, but it also served as a learning opportunity for many students. Participants were able to work closely with peers and learn from their techniques or experiences. Participants also gained hands-on practice at developing design ideas, building prototypes and making changes to produce a functional final design. This real-life experience may help many students gauge their interest in pursuing work in the growing robotics industry.

     

    In recent years, the U.S. and numerous other countries have shown a rising demand for robots to serve in diverse roles. Robotics technology is employed in production in various industries, including the chemical, automotive, plastics and food industries. Robots are also anticipated to take on a rapidly increasingly number of jobs over the next decade. Improvements in functionality and cost-effectiveness may drive greater use of robotics technology in business operations and everyday life.

     

    The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects growth through 2022 in various careers related to robotics. These occupations include mechanical engineering, computer engineering, electrical engineering and positions such as electro-mechanical technician. Ongoing advances in technology may support even more growth, making robotics an exciting field for young students to explore.

  • Chicago disabled people helping disabled people through “Battle Buddies”

    Many people who have suffered from debilitating injuries or illnesses in Illinois have trouble adjusting to the associated changes in their lives. These individuals may feel isolated or overwhelmed as they struggle with challenges that people close to them have never faced. Peer support groups can play an important role in helping these disabled individuals connect with others, regain confidence and find inspiration. In Chicago, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk has recently started a group, informally called “Kirk’s Battle Buddies,” that seeks to offer members these same benefits.

     

    The new group provides disabled people with a chance to share their experiences and support with other people who face similar struggles. Sen. Kirk became inspired to form the group after he suffered a stroke and corresponded with another stroke survivor, a 12-year-old named Jackson. Jackson encouraged Sen. Kirk to put forward his best effort during rehabilitation rather than giving up on making a full recovery. Since that time, the two “Battle Buddies” have given each other support throughout their recoveries.

     

    It is Sen. Kirk’s hope that the new group will provide similar motivation to people who suffer from disabling conditions or have experienced serious health setbacks. Members can turn to each other for support as they heal, rehabilitate, set physical goals and work to accomplish those goals. The inspiration for the group’s name comes from the Battle Buddy Foundation, which helps veterans assist other veterans through groups and community events. The Chicago “Battle Buddies” group, however, is open to anyone who has suffered from a serious health problem and wishes to participate.

     

    The first group meeting was held in February at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. The same month, members of the group participated in the Hustle Up the Hancock fundraiser. During the event, Sen. Kirk and two other “Battle Buddies” climbed the stairs at the John Hancock Center to raise awareness for lung disease research and education. The event gave group members a chance to achieve their physical goals or show support for other members.

     

    Besides providing motivation, groups such as the “Battle Buddies” can offer various invaluable services for disabled individuals. These groups can help members discover resources they might otherwise overlook, from financial and medical support to counseling. Group members can benefit from the advice of others who have faced similar challenges in their relationships, careers or everyday lives. Group participation also allows members to help their peers or communities. Together, these gains promote better physical and emotional outcomes for people rebuilding their lives after health setbacks.

  • Cryptoware hackers targeting businesses for ransom

    Highly publicized cyber attacks have recently drawn attention to the threat cyber crime poses to organizations across the country, including those in Illinois. One way that hackers are increasingly attacking businesses and other organizations is through the use of a specialized type of malware referred to as ransomware. Ransomware locks up computers or encrypts the contents of every file stored on a targeted computer. Computer users then must pay to regain access to their files or secure the decryption key. Hackers may demand “ransoms” of hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

     

    During the last year, attacks made with a ransomware virus called Cryptoware have been reported in various parts of the country. In Tennessee, Cryptoware hackers targeted a sheriff’s office and extorted a ransom. The city of Detroit also experienced a Cryptoware attack. Recently, hackers used Cryptoware to attack the Midlothian Police Department here in Illinois. The malware was downloaded when someone at the department opened an email containing the virus. The virus disabled the employee’s computer and produced a message demanding money in exchange for a code to restore system access. The department ultimately had to pay the hackers with bitcoins to regain access to the computer.

     

    Attacks like these are reportedly becoming more common. The President of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police notes that ransomware attacks against government or law enforcement agencies has become more prevalent over the last two years. Other organizations, such as businesses, educational institutions and financial organizations, may also be vulnerable to ransomware attacks. These attacks may disrupt business operations, cause reputational damage and result in the loss of sensitive information.

     

    Ransomware is known to infect computers and other electronic devices, such as smart phones, by a few different mechanisms. The malware can be downloaded when a person opens an email attachment containing a virus. People may also inadvertently expose their computers to ransomware by following links or pop-up windows to compromised websites. This second type of attack, which authorities call a “drive-by” attack, is becoming more common. Once the ransomware has been downloaded, hackers may demand untraceable payments in various forms, from prepaid cards to bitcoins.

     

    Simple precautions may help businesses and other organizations mitigate the risk of ransomware attacks. It is advisable for computer users to choose passwords carefully and use only current antivirus software. People should also employ caution when downloading attachments or visiting new websites. Additionally, individuals and organizations can consider storing back-up copies of all of their files offline. This last measure won’t reduce the risk of an attack, but it ensures that essential information is not lost if one occurs.

  • Justice Department considering investigation of Illinois residential centers over allegations of child abuse

    In Illinois, disadvantaged juveniles who are in state care are often sent to a residential treatment center. The residential treatment is intended to provide help to these children who struggle with family issues, drug use, alcohol use, behavioral problems and mental health. However, an in-depth investigation into these centers by the Chicago Tribune revealed that instead of treatment, these youth are often victims of violent acts. Now the U.S. Justice Department is said to be considering an investigation into these centers over the allegations of child abuse.

    The months’ long investigation uncovered stories of youth who had been revictimized by those who were supposed to help them as well as by other patients. Over 1,000 reports were filed by treatment centers during 2011 and 2013 over physical assaults made on wards of the state. Additionally, the centers submitted 428 reports concerning a sexual assault on a state ward. Former residents of these facilities, now over the age of 18, recounted experiences that included physical restraints by staff, gang fighting, committing crimes, stabbings, bullying from other residents, engaging in prostitution, smoking marijuana and sexual assault including rape.

    The investigation also revealed that law enforcement and the Department of Child and Family Services often ignored state law concerning the age of sexual consent. As a result, many sexual abuse or assault claims were considered consensual and dismissed, exposing children to further abuse. In spite of high records of assaults, runaway youth and sexual abuse, the state continued sending juvenile wards to these facilities.

    To escape these violent environments hundreds of youth run away and find themselves on the streets where there are little options open to them. To support themselves, they often enter prosecution or commit crimes – anything to keep from going back to the centers. Adding to the problem is the lack of staffing and the inability of facilities to protect children. For some centers, there is a lack of concern over victims of violence and their reluctance to act encourages the abuse and assaults to continue.

    With the emergence of this information, the Justice Department is considering the allegations and may decide to step in. This is something that Senator Mark Kirk from Illinois is hoping for. He has already asked the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to take action and will be approaching Medicaid and asking them to cut those facilities from health care funding. Here in Illinois, two new legislative bills have been introduced with the intent to address the issue and protect these vulnerable kids from further harm.

  • Illinois program providing temporary driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants highly successful

    It is estimated that over 11 million people in the United States today are undocumented immigrants and out of that number over 511,000 of that population live here in Illinois. Despite the fact they are not legal visitors or residents, these people purchase property, create businesses, work and drive on the state’s roads. Driving is considered a privilege and people who are issued driver’s licenses have taken a course on driver safety and studied the state’s road laws. Many undocumented immigrants are driving without formal training or understanding of these laws and this puts them at risk of getting into a car accident and harming others.

    Last year, Illinois sought to improve road safety by providing a program that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license which is valid for up to three years. The program, called a temporary visitor driver’s license, requires undocumented immigrants to show the following:

    • Proof of insurance
    • Pass written driving test
    • Pass road test
    • Pass vision test
    • Proof of residency in Illinois for at least one year

    While the licenses make it legal for undocumented immigrants to drive, they cannot be used as a form of identification and they are color coded to indicate their difference from a regular driver’s license. Furthermore, these licenses are only for driving a car or motorcycle – they do not permit holders to operate commercial vehicles.

    Since its launch, around 190,000 people have contacted the state to set up appointments to obtain the special license and over 85,000 people have received one. The program encourages immigrants to study driving rules in Illinois, thereby helping them understand what road signs mean and how to identify crosswalks. Immigrants can also sign up for driving courses that help them develop defensive driving skills, avoid engaging in dangerous behaviors such as distracted driving and tailgating, and how to navigate heavy traffic without putting themselves and others in danger.

    Recently the Chicago Tribune pointed out that almost 800 traffic accidents occur in the state daily. In 2013, the state saw a 4 percent increase in crashes. Some believe this rise is due to the drop in gasoline prices which has encouraged people to drive more. Factors that contributed to the accidents include speeding, alcohol use, weather, wildlife on roadways and inexperience. Now that Illinois has opened a path for undocumented drivers to obtain a license, it is hoped that fewer accidents will be the result.

  • New Illinois law provides help to victims of school bullying

    Valentine’s Day is designed to show love and acceptance but it is not uncommon for school bullies to twist that intent to make their victims feel unworthy of such affection. Bullying Statistics.org estimates that in 2010 one in seven students at schools across the nation, including here in Illinois, were either bullied or acted as a bully. Over the last several years, bullying has taken more victims as bullies use texting, social media and other electronic methods to harass and humiliate others. Now Illinois hopes a new law will provide help to students who are victims of bullying.

    The new law, which went into effect last month, amends the state’s School Code. Previously, the law gave Illinois schools the power to investigate cyberbullying that occurred through a school-owned electronic device. Now, the law allows schools to expand their investigations to bullying claims that don’t involve school-owned computers as well as school-sponsored activities, functions or programs if the bullying causes a disruption to the school or the educational process.

    One example would be a student who is at home and creates a web page or blog under the identity of another student. That student then posts images or messages which cause psychological and emotional harm to the victim. Those posts or web page are shared with other students at the school and word spreads through texted and emailed links. At school, the victim is taunted by others over the existence of this online content and is unable to focus on schoolwork. The school is notified of the cyber-bullying and could use the new amendment to look at the bully’s electronic actions. If other students also shared the content with more than one person, the school could investigate them for bullying as well.

    Under the new law, schools must create a process on how they will determine whether the alleged bullying falls under their jurisdictions. Schools investigating a bullying incident are also required to provide helpful information to the alleged victims such as community bullying programs, support services and counseling.

    Recently, one school district sent parents into a panic after sending out a letter stating that students may have to give their social media passwords to their school. This was incorrect as Illinois made it illegal for schools to ask for students’ passwords to social media sites in a new law last year. Victims and their parents can provide proof of bullying to the school through a screen shot or a copy of a text.

  • Medical Marijuana Access Extended to Children in Illinois

    Starting this year, children in Illinois who struggle with severe medical conditions such as cancer, muscular dystrophy and epilepsy will now have access to medical marijuana. The change comes after parents lobbied lawmakers to expand the 2014 legislation which legalized marijuana as a medical treatment for adults.

    While the debate over medical marijuana has grown in recent years, research shows that as far back as the 1980s the drug was shown to be effective for people suffering with epilepsy. According to Medical News Today, Epilepsy is a condition that affects the electrical activity of the brain. Within the human brain electrical signals are constantly sent and received by cells. These signals control everything from breathing to memory to muscle control. Epilepsy causes these electrical signals to increase and this creates a communication error to occur between the cells. When this happens, the person experiences what is known as a seizure.

    It is estimated that epilepsy affects 2.5 million Americans and many of these are children. Epilepsy has many causes including birth injury, brain tumors, an infectious illness, strokes, prenatal brain malformation and chromosome disorders. It is also thought that a genetic condition can cause epilepsy to develop in families. Some forms of epilepsy can even raise a child’s mortality rate by 15 or 20 percent. While there are many drugs on the market, these can cause severe side effects for children which include the following: blistering, heart rhythm changes, sleeping problems, cognitive slowness, hyperactivity and even large skin areas that peel off. Additionally, many of the drugs are ineffective.

    Medical researchers discovered that the marijuana plant contains a chemical compound called Cannabidiol. This is the compound often used in medical marijuana products and has been proven as an effective treatment in epilepsy as well as cancer and other serious conditions. In epilepsy, medical marijuana has been proven to reduce the number of seizures that a child has and appears to have no negative side effects, including a psychoactive “high.”  Recently, researchers at the University of Utah recommended that all children with severe epilepsy as well as other conditions have access to the drug.

    Under the new Illinois law, children can only receive medical marijuana in food or through liquid. Furthermore, parents or legal guardians must give their consent and two doctors’ recommendations are required. To receive the medical drug, photos of the children must be submitted and as well as fingerprints of the caregivers.

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