Rauner’s criminal-justice reform commission issues first recommendations

Rauner’s criminal-justice reform commission issues first recommendations

The commission’s 14 policy suggestions aim to safely reduce Illinois’ prison population by 25 percent by 2025.

Illinois’ criminal-justice reform commission released its first set of recommendations on Jan. 17, offering the state a path forward that would improve public safety and reduce costs in the state’s bloated prison system.

Illinois’ corrections system is in dire need of reform. 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. State prisons are overcrowded, and over 40 percent of ex-offenders return to prison within three years after release.

To address these problems, Gov. Bruce Rauner formed the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform, tasking it with developing policies to safely reduce Illinois’ prison population by 25 percent by 2025.

The commission’s 46-page report gives an overview of Illinois’ prison population growth, makes the case for the necessity of reform, and proposes a list of actions to accomplish the governor’s goal. According to the report, Illinois’ imprisonment rate increased more than five-fold over the last 40 years, to almost 380 inmates per 100,000 in 2014 from about 66 inmates per 100,000 citizens in 1975. But much of the growth in prison rolls has come from low-level, nonviolent repeat offenders who cycle in and out of prison at great cost to taxpayers, without anyone ever addressing the root causes of their offenses.

In the report, the commission lays out 14 policy reforms to change this system by focusing on data collection, improving communication between local and state-level law enforcement, limiting excessive reliance on prisons, and easing the transition of ex-offenders into productive employment once they complete their sentences. The commission’s recommendations are:

  1. Increase the use of risk-and-needs assessment: Expand the use of risk-assessment tools by IDOC and the Prisoner Review Board, so that rehabilitative resources, such as drug and mental health treatment, are targeted at those offenders who would benefit the most from them.
  2. Establish local Criminal Justice Coordinating Councils: Create local criminal-justice boards that would develop strategic plans to address crime and corrections policy on the local level.
  3. Improve and expand data collection, integration and sharing: The report suggests establishing the Illinois Data Exchange Coordinating Council to facilitate data sharing between state and local governments. This way, each level of government will have a more effective way to share information and collaborate on responses to criminal-justice concerns, as needed.
  4. Regularly evaluate criminal-justice programs for effectiveness: Require all state agencies that provide funding for criminal-justice programs to regularly evaluate those programs, to make sure the programs in which taxpayers invest deliver what they promise – and discontinue those that don’t.
  5. Phase out short prison stays: Right now, over 10,000 inmates are sent to IDOC for stays of less than a year. This process often wastes resources because short prison stays do not last long enough for offenders to benefit from drug treatment and other rehabilitative programs. Moreover, housing low-risk inmates with high-risk inmates reduces the likelihood that low-level offenders rehabilitate and avoid crime after release. This proposal would allow IDOC to pay local jails to keep offenders with short stays instead of transferring them, or to consider home detention and electronic monitoring, if appropriate.
  6. Increase judicial discretion: Many drug offenses, residential burglary, and some repeat offenses come with mandatory prison time, while probation may make more sense. The commission suggests giving judges the discretion to determine whether probation is appropriate for these offenses, instead of forcing judges to send all such offenders to prison.
  7. Discourage prison for low-risk offenders: For low-risk offenders, incarceration often isn’t a cost-effective use of public resources. Require that judges explain at sentencing why incarceration, rather than an alternative such as probation, is appropriate when a low-level offender hasn’t been on probation previously, and has no history of violent crime.
  8. Expand eligibility for programming credits: Giving inmates the chance to earn time off their sentences by participating in rehabilitative programs encourages good conduct in prison, and increases the likelihood that they’ll succeed after release. All inmates should be eligible and encouraged to join these programs.
  9. Improve use of Adult Transition Centers: Adult Transition Centers help offenders transition back into the community by providing a supervised place to stay while finding work, attending school, and learning life management skills. The state should change how it uses its four Adult Transition Centers so that higher-risk offenders, not just low- risk offenders, can benefit from the programs prior to release.
  10. Develop release program for seriously ill inmates: Develop a program to let terminally ill or incapacitated offenders who don’t pose a public safety risk move to home confinement or medical facilities for treatment, thereby saving the state thousands in treatment and care costs.
  11. Improve use of electronic monitoring: Improve and expand the use of electronic monitoring for short-term inmates, and as an intermediate sanction for offenders who violate the terms of parole.
  12. Enhance rehabilitative programming in Illinois prisons: Improve access to education, vocational training and substance abuse programs to help offenders successfully adapt to life after prison.
  13. Remove burdensome occupational licensing barriers: Remove unnecessary barriers keeping ex-offenders from obtaining professional licenses.
  14. Issue state ID cards upon release from prison: IDs are required for obtaining legal employment, housing and other basic needs in Illinois, but many offenders don’t have them – which makes re-entry even more difficult. Illinois should provide ID cards to ex-offenders upon release.

The commission’s recommendations provide a good starting place for reform. Part 2 of the commission’s report, due by spring 2016, will focus on overhauling Illinois’ sentencing policy and making recommendations for improving criminal-justice services at the community level.

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