Q: A recent survey asked people what they thought would be the best response to the nation’s crime problem. Choices included education, retraining and mental health services. Another was stricter sentences, which ignores both the cost and the fact that prisons are already overpacked. How much does Illinois spend on its prison system? And, second, how much does it cost to house someone in prison?
K.S., of O’Fallon
A: You’ll likely find the numbers nothing short of arresting.
As recently as 1982, the state’s 25 adult correctional centers housed just fewer than 15,000 inmates. As of Dec. 31, 2015, that number had soared to 46,240, an increase of more than 200 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice. If the trend continues, a prison system designed to hold about 32,000 could be crammed with 55,450 by 2025, according to an Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council report a couple of years ago.
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As you suggest, the costs are staggering. In fiscal year 2015, the Illinois Department of Corrections with its 11,600 employees was working with a budget of $1.41 billion. According to Illinois Policy, an independent state think tank, that amounts to $21,600 per inmate per year paid directly from IDOC, largely from the state’s general funds budget.
But that’s hardly the half of it — literally. When you figure in costs that fall outside the system — including employee health care, benefits, pensions and capital expenses — the total rises to $38,268 ($105 per day) per inmate, according to a 2012 study by the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonpartisan criminal-justice research foundation. In fact, of the 40 states covered in Vera’s study, only Connecticut had more corrections expenses that fell outside of its prison budget.
Except for Wisconsin, Illinois’ cost per prisoner was substantially higher than the six surrounding states. At $14,603, Kentucky led the nation followed by Indiana at $14,823. Also lower were Missouri ($22,350), Michigan ($28,117), Iowa ($32,925) and Wisconsin ($37,994). Still, when it comes to per-inmate expense, Vera puts Illinois at a relatively middle-of-the-road 17th of the 50 states. Topping the list is New York at a mind-blowing $60,076 for each of its 51,727 inmates followed by New Jersey at about $54,000 and Connecticut at $50,000.
Remember, too, that these numbers cover only the state prison system. According to the National Institute of Corrections, a 2013 study found that there were another 20,600 inmates in Illinois’ 102 county jails and other adult detention facilities (no cost given). And there was also the matter of supervising the 122,814 adults on probation as of Dec. 31, 2014, and keeping a watchful eye on the 28,478 parolees in fiscal year 2015.
So what to do with an expensive system that had reached its designed population limit 25 years ago? Illinois Policy for one says the state should find ways of throwing fewer people in the slammer. (No angry emails, please. This is not meant to advocate one policy or another, but is merely offered for consideration.)
“When nearly half of Illinois’ prison population is made up of nonviolent offenders, it’s worth asking — is incarceration the most cost-effective way to address nonviolent crime?” the group’s Bryant Jackson-Green asked in a 2015 report. “Nonviolent drug offenders, for example, would benefit from alternative drug-treatment programs that are much less expensive than prison and directly treat the root causes of crime. The cost of these interventions, through programs such as Adult Redeploy, for example, is only about $4,400 per person.”
Moreover, Jackson-Green added, the Pew Charitable Trusts studied FBI and Justice Bureau incarceration and crime data from 2008-2013 and found that crime rates fell in 32 states even as their incarceration rates dropped as well. In fact, the decline in crime was greater in those states that also decreased their incarceration rate, Pew discovered.
“Florida, for instance, fell by 26 percent as its imprisonment rate dropped by 6 percent,” Jackson-Green noted. “Crime in Maryland fell by 24 percent while the incarceration rate fell by 12 percent. Of the 10 states home to the country’s largest drops in crime, eight reduced incarceration rates.”
In fairness, Illinois also saw a 23 percent drop in the crime rate (fifth largest drop in the country) as it jailed 7 percent more prisoners. Nevertheless, Jackson-Green’s group calls for abolishing mandatory minimum sentences and more outside help for nonviolent offenders. Families Against Mandatory Minimums said it was heartened by Gov. Bruce Rauner’s creation of a Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform. Last January, the Illinois Legislature passed a bill that gives judges more sentencing alternatives for nonviolent offenders.
Since 2015, the commission has called for changes in mandatory minimum sentencing laws for nonviolent drug offenses. However, the commission does not recommend restricting a judge’s sentencing authority, but the new law allows judges to offer probation when appropriate.
Rauner said the bill is part of his plan to reduce the state’s prison population while enhancing public safety. “This report is another important step in repairing our broken criminal justice system and safely reducing the prison population,” Rauner said in a statement in January. “While our work is not over in achieving this goal, we have made significant achievements in changing the system.”
What supposedly ingenious cost-saving device introduced by Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II in the late 1700s was buried after a few months and never used again?
Answer to Saturday’s trivia: A butterfly is often not just a butterfly in James McNeil Whistler’s art. Best known for his “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1” (aka “Whistler’s Mother”), Whistler created a stylized butterfly from his initials, which he used as an integral element of his works to sign them.