Gov. Bruce Rauner wants to reduce the number of inmates in Illinois’ overcrowded prison system over the next decade – and he’s willing to devote money to do so at a time when he’s urging lawmakers to be prudent with spending in other areas.
Reforming the state’s criminal justice system presents the first-term Republican governor with a rare opportunity to find agreement with legislators as he prepares to deliver his second State of the State address Wednesday. Rauner’s first year in office has been defined by a budget stalemate – now in its seventh month – with Democrats who control the Legislature.
But reforming the criminal justice system and shifting more attention to rehabilitating offenders rather than imprisoning them is an issue that’s appealing to both parties here and around the country.
“Even though there’s a lot of gridlock right now, you’re seeing a real strong bipartisan agreement that this is something that Illinois has to do,” said John Maki, executive director of Illinois’ Criminal Justice Information Authority, an organization that administers federal public safety grants and researches criminal justice trends.
Maki is part of a 28-member group convened by Rauner last year with the goal of reducing Illinois’ prison population by 25 percent by 2025. Here’s a look at the group’s work and some of the 14 recommendations they’ve presented the governor.
Illinois’ prison population has grown from 6,000 in 1974 to about 49,000 presently. That’s an increase of more than 500 percent for a system designed to house 32,000 inmates. Annually, it costs more than $22,000 on average to incarcerate someone and the state spends $1.3 billion per year on prisons.
Rauner told commission members Jan. 14 that programs that reduce recidivism and help inmates acclimate back into society is a worthy investment now to save money in the future. It’s a popular idea among other states with Republican leadership, such as Georgia and Kansas, which have recently taken measures to reduce their prison population.
Some Democrats also have long expressed interest in reforming states’ criminal justice systems, arguing that minorities are often disproportionately represented in prisons, sometimes as a result of low-level drug offenses.
“I was glad to hear (Rauner) say it,” said Rep. Elgie Sims, a Chicago Democrat on the commission. “And I hope that the investment and the desire to get things done really happen.”
Since the commission started meeting in March, its focus has been to study possible changes to sentencing laws, alternatives to incarceration and effective rehabilitation programs.
Among the group’s recommendations:
▪ Allow judges discretion to sentence someone to probation for low-level offenses, like residential burglary or some drug crimes.
▪ Authorize and encourage the Department of Corrections to use alternatives to prison for those facing a sentence of less than a year.
▪ Use electronic monitoring instead of prison for those with short sentences.
▪ Eliminate unnecessary restrictions for convicts looking to obtain professional licenses for jobs.
▪ Improve prison rehabilitation programs, with a focus on substance abuse and cognitive behavioral therapy.
“If we can implement your recommendations, I firmly believe that we can have the people of Illinois safer, I believe that we can save taxpayer money, and most importantly I believe we can help those who’ve made mistakes lead productive lives,” Rauner told the group.
It’s not yet known how much rehabilitation programs would cost the state, or how the state would cover the price tag. But commission members say the savings from reducing the prison population can help.
The next steps
Many of the first set of recommendations can be implemented without legislative approval. But the group is currently working on more recommendations, due sometime this spring, that will require legislation. Some of the topics include possible changes to sentences without the possibility of parole and modifications to sentences for drug offenses.
Those may require tough votes for lawmakers, commission members said.
“It can be seen as being soft on crime when in reality we’re being smart on crime,” said Rep. Scott Drury, a Democrat from Highwood.
Brendan Kelly, the state’s attorney in St. Clair County and another member of the commission, said its goals are laudable but added there must be caution not to do away with laws that have improved public safety, like mandatory minimums for violent crimes.
“That’s the trick. Public safety has to be paramount,” he said.