4 important takeaways from Rauner commission’s initial report on criminal justice
The initial overview of plans to safely reduce Illinois’ prison population by 25 percent contains important lessons for policymakers.
On Feb. 11, Gov. Bruce Rauner formed the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform. Its task is to develop policies that will safely reduce Illinois’ prison population by 25 percent by 2025.
The commission released its initial report on July 1, which will be followed by final recommendations in December. The report focuses on how Illinois developed an incarceration problem and discusses reform proposals that may help fix it. More detailed sections highlight the work of the commission’s subcommittees on law, community corrections, budget and capacity, jails, and policy implementation.
Here are four important takeaways from the report:
- Most of Illinois’ incarceration growth has come from low-level felonies: From 1989-2014, 55 percent of the increase in prison admissions was due to higher admissions for Class 4 felonies, the lowest-level felony class. Most of these admissions were for people convicted of drug offenses, most of whom were also never convicted of a violent crime and many of whom had never been sentenced to probation.
- People are spending more time in prison than they used to: Compared to 25 years ago, everyone sentenced to prison today is spending more time than they would have for the same crimes – for all offenses. The report points out that while crime rates have fallen significantly since the early 1990s, largely due to better policing and an aging population, public policy needs to be updated too. Sentence lengths should be appropriate for the crime committed. But policymakers should rethink longer sentencing for nonviolent offenders. “High levels of incarceration are costly, unduly punitive, and at times counterproductive to the goal of preserving public safety,” the authors of the report noted.
- Inmates have high substance-abuse rates: An estimated 80 percent of prison inmates have substance-abuse problems, according to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited in the report. So if 25 percent of the current population was diverted to alternative programming, around 9,600 offenders might need drug or alcohol treatment in some form. This is cheaper than incarceration, but it means that, as prison costs fall, some of the savings need to be redirected to community-based corrections programs.
- Prison work opportunities are limited: Building job skills is key to successfully finding work after prison. But while the Illinois Department of Corrections has nearly 48,000 inmates, there are only 11,400 job assignments for prisoners. As a result, most people will not have a chance to build or maintain job skills while incarcerated. This is one other reason why parole, or mandatory supervised release, makes sense for low-level offenders. When on parole, they can at least work to support their families and will be better positioned for regular work once their sentence is complete.