6 highlights from Illinois criminal justice commission’s final report
The criminal justice commission’s recommendations work toward providing more opportunity for ex-offenders and reducing the state’s prison population.
The best deterrent to a career in crime is a good job.
To that end, Illinois has made a lot of progress in giving ex-offenders hope that a second chance is possible. In 2016, legislators passed several pieces of legislation that will make it easier for ex-offenders to find work and stop cycling in and out of the prison system.
The Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform released its full set of reform proposals Jan. 10. The set of recommendations provides a continued focus on re-entry reform – meaning, policy solutions that would make it easier for ex-offenders to re-enter the workforce.
This is one of the most important objectives state lawmakers can pursue, because Illinois’ criminal justice system is failing people – crime victims, taxpayers and ex-offenders alike. The state spent $1.4 billion on the Illinois Department of Corrections, or IDOC, in 2014, not including pay and benefits for all workers. The results don’t match the investment: Nearly half of ex-offenders return to prison within three years. But a job changes that equation. Research from the Safer Foundation shows that ex-offenders who find work within a year after release can achieve a recidivism rate as low as 16 percent.
The commission’s newest proposals include several promising policy ideas, including the following recommendations:
- Raise the felony theft threshold to $2,000 from $500: If you steal an iPhone in Texas, you’ll be charged with a misdemeanor and a sentence of up to a year in county jail; but if you steal an iPhone in Illinois, you’ll be charged with a class 3 felony and face up to 5 years in prison.
Twenty-nine other states have felony theft thresholds twice as high or even higher – such as Texas and Wisconsin, where theft below $2,500 is generally a misdemeanor. Illinois last updated its threshold in 2010, when it was increased to $500 from $300.
- Reduce minimum felony sentences: According to the commission’s report, among people sentenced to prison in 2015 for Class 2, 3 or 4 felonies, 40 percent received the minimum allowable sentence, hinting that judges would set lower sentences if it were allowed. In general, mandatory minimums impair judicial discretion in determining an appropriate sentence.
- Review all state occupational licenses and remove unnecessary licensing restrictions for ex-offenders. The commission has suggested the need for a full-scale audit of all professional licensing restrictions that create barriers for ex-offenders looking for employment. Removing these barriers is critical, because doing so would provide an easier path to employment for men and women leaving Illinois prisons.
2016 saw a lot of positive movement on this front, with the signing of bills that opened the door for ex-offenders to apply for licenses in several fields, including roofing, cosmetology and nursing.
This was an important start, but more than 100 licenses still may be denied to ex-offenders because of their criminal backgrounds.
- Improve and expand data collection and sharing: The first step to understanding the scope of Illinois’ criminal justice problems is making sure the public has all the data needed to evaluate the system.
- Improve and expand the use of electronic monitoring technology: Put another way: Don’t put people in jail if they don’t need to be there. Keeping nonviolent, short-term inmates in the community and out from behind bars means they can keep working and living their lives without the disruption of a prison sentence – which also makes it likelier they’ll be able to continue being productive members of society after they’ve completed their sentence.
- Expand evidence-based programs that target the root causes of crime, such as substance abuse: Evidence-based programming is incredibly important in treating the underlying causes of crime as opposed to locking someone in prison. Adult Redeploy, a state initiative that helps counties invest resources in alternatives to incarceration, is more effective and less expensive than incarceration. The program saved the state $76 million from 2011-2015. The average cost per participant was $4,400.
Will County runs a drug court through the Adult Redeploy program, which provides counseling and treatment to individuals for 18 months. Since 2000, it has helped 300 participants get clean at a cost of $3,000 per participant – and 90 percent of them have not reoffended. Meanwhile, it costs the state $22,000 per inmate to keep someone in prison – and that’s not including the cost of things like the employee pay and benefits paid out to prison workers.
The recommendations from the commission’s report take aim at achieving the governor’s goal of reducing the state’s prison population 25 percent by 2025. These suggestions would go a long way toward this effort, but more can still be done, including expanding access to record sealing and reforms to business liability, which would protect businesses and make them more likely to give ex-offenders a chance at employment.