6 reforms to address Illinois’ broken criminal-justice system

6 reforms to address Illinois’ broken criminal-justice system

Illinois’ prison system is failing taxpayers and offenders alike. Here are six reforms to start fixing the problem.

Illinois’ corrections system is in dire need of reform. The state’s prison population has increased over 330 percent since the 1970s and, as a result, its prisons are at 150 percent of their operational capacity. Illinois Department of Corrections, or IDOC, spending is at an all-time high. In fiscal year 2015, the state spent $1.4 billion on its corrections program – an increase of over $184 million from 2007. All of this spending is not achieving true rehabilitation, however – nearly half of ex-offenders who leave IDOC end up returning within three years.

Given Illinois’ financial insolvency, including a $111 billion unfunded pension liability, spending millions constructing and operating more prisons is not a feasible solution for prison overcrowding.

Thankfully, there’s a solid model for reform. States such as Texas and South Carolina have rejected new prison construction – and the billions of dollars in state spending that would come with it – in favor of cost-effective alternatives to prison. Policymakers in other states shifted their focus to diverting more people into drug and mental-health treatment, reforming sentencing laws, and making other changes that address the root causes of crime.

Not only do these policies cost less – they help ex-offenders get their lives on the right track. In order to get prison spending under control and improve outcomes, Illinois should adopt similar reforms.

The challenge is to reduce Illinois’ prison population without jeopardizing public safety. But other states have already proven this is possible: Nearly every state that has embraced criminal-justice reform is also experiencing falling crime rates. Most are successfully reducing their incarceration rates as well, but Illinois remains among a few that continue to incarcerate more people when crime rates fall.

Forthcoming research from the Illinois Policy Institute details six policy proposals that will advance those goals while saving the state an estimated $96 million per year:

  1. Expand Adult Redeploy: The Illinois Policy Institute estimates Illinois could save $27 million annually by expanding its diversion program.
  1. Establish a restorative-justice program: Illinois should pilot a victim-offender mediation program for property crimes. This could save $780,500 in one year and, if successful and expanded, millions more in later years.
  1. Eliminate “max-outs”: To help encourage successful transition back into society, Illinois should allow offenders to trade more time under mandatory supervised release for less time during the final year of their prison sentence. Illinois could potentially save $27.5 million a year by implementing this reform.
  1. Reclassify nonviolent drug offenses: Illinois should follow Utah, South Carolina and other states in making low-level drug possession a misdemeanor instead of a felony. This could save the state nearly $40 million a year.
  1. Remove occupational-licensing restrictions: By removing legal barriers to employment, Illinois can create economic opportunity for ex-offenders and earn more in tax revenue.
  1. Raise felony thresholds: By raising the felony theft threshold to $1,000 and revisiting it annually, or by pegging it to inflation, the Institute estimates Illinois can save over $1.5 million a year.

Taxpayers expect Illinois’ criminal-justice system to prioritize individual rights, fiscal responsibility and public safety. To achieve these goals, lawmakers must reorganize the state’s corrections system to focus more on rehabilitation and recovery, not simply punishment and incarceration.

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