Rauner signs bill to discourage incarceration for low-level offenders with no prior violent convictions
August 30, 2016

Rauner signs bill to discourage incarceration for low-level offenders with no prior violent convictions

Gov. Bruce Rauner has signed into law Senate Bill 3164, which requires a court to review a presentencing report and explain why incarceration is appropriate prior to imposing a prison sentence on a Class 3 or Class 4 felony offender with no prior violent convictions.

On Aug. 19, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed into law Senate Bill 3164, which discourages incarceration for low-level offenders. The new law prevents a judge from imposing a prison sentence on a Class 3 or Class 4 felony offender who has no prior probation or convictions for violent crimes unless the judge reviews a presentencing report and explains why incarceration is appropriate.

This act enshrines in law a presumption against incarceration for low-level offenders with no prior violent convictions; as such, it should save Illinois taxpayers money, reduce dangerous prison overcrowding, and improve low-level offenders’ likelihood of holding jobs and staying away from crime. It should also move Illinois closer toward the governor’s goal of reducing the state’s prison population by 25 percent by 2025.

Avoiding routine incarceration of nonviolent offenders with no prior violent convictions is a smart way to conserve public safety resources, especially given that in 2015, nearly 60 percent of offenders newly admitted to Illinois prisons for Class 3 and Class 4 felonies had no prior convictions for violent crimes, according to a press release issued by the governor’s office in March. Incarceration costs Illinois taxpayers nearly $22,000 per inmate, which amounted to $1.4 billion spent on Illinois prisons in fiscal year 2015. Channeling prison dollars toward more serious public safety threats is a more cost-effective use of taxpayer funds.

And keeping lower-level offenders out of Illinois prisons should alleviate some of the logistical and safety problems of the nation’s most overcrowded prison system. Illinois prisons housed nearly 45,000 inmates as of June 2016, in a system approved to hold just 32,000. Addressing more low-level offenses through probation or other conditional release is a sensible approach to reducing this unsafe prison overcrowding.

Even more important, handling low-level offenses without resorting to incarceration can prevent the cycle of joblessness and recidivism that can trap low-level offenders and keep them from becoming law-abiding, productive members of their communities.

Not surprisingly, Illinoisans support sensible measures to safely reduce the state’s prison population. A recent Illinois Policy Institute-commissioned poll of 500 Illinois registered voters found 74 percent of the respondents – strong majorities of Republicans, Democrats and Independents – believe prisons should be used primarily for violent offenders.

The signing of SB 3164 should help the state move closer to that ideal.

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