Bipartisan majority of Illinois voters support criminal-justice reform, study shows

Bipartisan majority of Illinois voters support criminal-justice reform, study shows

New polling shows large majorities of Illinois Republican and Democratic voters think the state’s criminal-justice system needs a major overhaul.

Nearly 90 percent of Illinois voters agree that Illinois needs to adjust its penalties for low-level drug and theft offenses, according to a new poll commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Eighty-eight percent of voters who responded to the survey think nonviolent offenders who commit crimes such as drug possession and theft should be sentenced to community service or a treatment program instead of prison. Eighty-two percent of Republicans, 89 percent of Democrats, and 90 percent of Illinois independents support this change in policy, according to the poll results.

Strong majorities of respondents also supported reclassifying possession of a small amount of drugs as a misdemeanor instead of a felony. Seventy-nine percent of Democrats, 78 percent of independents, and 74 percent of Republicans support this approach.

These are both straightforward reforms that could save the state millions of dollars. A 2015 Illinois Policy Institute report estimated the state could save at least $5,961 per offender – or $10,938,435 annually ­– by reclassifying Class 4 drug felonies as misdemeanors. If administrative costs fall along with the prison population decrease, the Illinois Department of Corrections, or IDOC, could potentially save up to $39,363,000 a year.

The ACLU poll further revealed that 69 percent of voters believe passing laws to reduce the size of Illinois’ prison population should be a “top” or “high” priority for lawmakers, and that this would have a beneficial effect for communities. Illinois had the nation’s most overcrowded prisons as of the end of 2014, holding over 48,000 offenders in a system built for only 32,000. That number has dropped to just under 46,000 as of January – an improvement, but still far too high.

In all, the poll shows voters are dissatisfied with Illinois’ criminal-justice system – as they should be. 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 released from IDOC end up returning within three years.

But with policy and legislative changes, Illinois can lower its crime rate, lower its incarceration rate, and spend more prudently on criminal justice while maintaining public safety. The key is focusing on rehabilitation, recovery and employment – not just on punishment and warehousing people behind bars. Illinois must focus on reforms that: ensure each sentence fits a person’s crime; relieve budgets by using cost-effective alternatives to incarceration where possible; and remove barriers that keep former offenders out of legal work. Studies show that recidivism – the rate at which former offenders return to crime – can drop substantially when former offenders find work.

Taxpayers expect Illinois’ criminal-justice system to maintain public safety and respect individual rights while maintaining fiscal sustainability. Lawmakers will have to get smart on crime – not merely tough – to meet the corrections challenges Illinois is facing.

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