Rauner’s proposed prison-funding increase must be accompanied by incarceration reform
To get spending under control, Illinois must incarcerate fewer people
Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposed 2016 budget increases spending on corrections for the coming fiscal year. If passed, the Illinois Department of Corrections, or IDOC, will have over $1.4 billion to work with, up from $1.3 billion in fiscal year 2015.
The reason for the spending increase is fairly simple: Illinois operates 25 adult correctional facilities, which were designed to house a total of 32,075 inmates. But Illinois prisons are severely overcrowded, currently holding 48,227 inmates as of Feb. 18, according to IDOC. This means the state’s prisons are operating at over 150 percent capacity.
Much of the budget increase will go toward hiring to help IDOC deal with overcrowding, which is neither safe nor sustainable. The department spent $60 million a year on overtime costs for prison guards.
While increasing staff numbers may be a sensible way to cut back on the cost of overtime, for which employees must be paid 1.5 times their normal salary, it’s not a long-term solution to the systemic problem at hand. IDOC is amidst a budgetary crisis, and will be unable to make payroll by April. To get prison spending under control, the state must incarcerate fewer people. Prison may make sense for violent criminals who pose a threat to public safety. But nearly 70 percent of Illinois’ prison population is serving time for nonviolent offenses. Many would benefit from diversion into drug- and mental-health treatment programs, parole, or other programs that keep families together and allow offenders to continue working instead of costing taxpayers billions each year.
In order to build a fairer and more cost-effective system, the state needs major criminal-justice reforms. The state must strongly consider policies that:
- Reform mandatory minimum sentencing: Repeal laws that set a minimum number of years to serve for an offense, allowing judges to tailor punishments to each crime and individual circumstances.
- Roll back overcriminalization: Reduce laws that criminalize victimless activities and lead to overcrowded prisons, overextended public budgets and police militarization.
- Ease offender re-entry into society: Remove state-imposed barriers, such as occupational-licensing rules, that prevent ex-offenders from finding work and integrating back into society.
If taxpayers want Illinois’ criminal-justice system to prioritize individual rights and fiscal responsibility, lawmakers must reorganize the state’s corrections system to focus on rehabilitation and recovery, not simply punishment and incarceration. Hopefully, Rauner will act with the General Assembly to pass sensible reforms to the state’s justice system.