Illinois leads nation in overcrowded prisons

Illinois leads nation in overcrowded prisons

Illinois prisons held 150 percent of their maximum capacity in 2014, the highest rate of crowding of any prison system in the country, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

If anyone requires proof that Illinois needs criminal-justice reform, here’s a new statistic: Illinois’ prisons were the nation’s most overcrowded in 2014.

Illinois prisons held 16,183 more people than they were meant to hold, according to a September 2015 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, or BJS. That means Illinois’ prisons stood at over 150 percent of their intended capacity, a higher rate of overcrowding than any other prison system in the U.S.

The BJS report draws on prison-population data from states across the country as of Dec. 31, 2014. On that day, Illinois held 48,278 inmates in state facilities that were approved to hold just 32,095 persons (which was increased from the original design capacity of 28,212) – putting the state at 150.4 percent of capacity. The next-worst state on the list, Ohio, held 46,151 people in facilities approved to hold 34,986, which equaled 131.9 percent of capacity.

Illinois’ prison numbers did drop slightly between 2013 and 2014 – by 0.8 percent. The decline continued in 2015, as the state’s prison population decreased to 47,483 inmates by May 2015. This decrease put Illinois prisons at 147.9 percent of capacity – still leading the country in overcrowding.

In all, 19 prison systems across the U.S., including the Federal Bureau of Prisons, exceeded their maximum facility capacity in 2014.

illinois prison overcrowding

According to a July report by the Illinois Department of Corrections, Illinois prisons now have bed space for 50,598 – in facilities approved to hold 32,095. But simply adding more beds to the same facilities to accommodate a surplus of inmates doesn’t solve the overcrowding problem, which poses a safety risk for inmates and prison workers.

Are Illinois prisons overcrowded because of a crime wave? No. In fact, crime in Illinois has been falling, along with crime in nearly every other state. Every state in the country saw crime drop between 2009 and 2014, except for North Dakota and South Dakota. During that time period, Illinois’ crime rate fell by 24 percent – more than the national crime-rate decline of 15 percent, according a recent study by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

And it isn’t higher incarceration rates that have resulted in decreased crime. On the contrary, 30 states experienced falling crime rates in tandem with declining incarceration rates. Experts have attributed the decline to factors such as improved policing techniques, an aging population, income growth and other social and economic influences.

These facts demonstrate the urgency of the mission of the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform, which Gov. Bruce Rauner has tasked with developing policy changes to reduce Illinois’ prison population by 25 percent by 2025. As Illinois faces a $111 billion unfunded pension liability and has gone months without a budget, the state doesn’t have the money to construct new prisons to relieve overcrowding. Improvement on this front will have to come from criminal-justice reforms that safely reduce the prison population – reforms that states such as Texas, Georgia, Utah and others have already enacted.

How can Illinois turn things around? Policymakers should continue diverting more people into drug and mental-health treatment, reforming sentencing laws and removing many of the barriers to employment that keep former offenders from earning a living. In a recent paper, Illinois Policy suggested six initial reforms that could save the state hundreds of millions of dollars by addressing these problems.

A majority of states are lowering both crime and incarceration rates. Illinois must take bold action and do the same.

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