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Editorial: Bipartisan support grows for prison reform

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For decades, Americans pushing to end the unconscionable way our nation throws huge numbers of people into prison have appealed to the heart and the wallet.

To liberals, they have pressed the moral arguments — lives and families are being destroyed. To conservatives, they have emphasized the financial case — prisons are hugely expensive.

But, truth is, that’s a strategy that does a disservice to the level of thoughtfulness on both sides. Americans who lean left worry about taxes, too, while those on the right are not without compassion. And most Americans, wherever they may fall along the political spectrum, support criminal justice reform only if it does not compromise public safety. Nobody wants dangerous people running loose.

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More so than perhaps we understood, Americans may not be so far apart on matters of criminal justice reform, and they may be growing closer together. We see a growing bi-partisan consensus that presents our nation with the best chance in generations to divert many more non-violent offenders — especially young people and low-level drug abusers — away from incarceration and into community-based programs that help them lead to law-abiding and productive lives.

On Thursday, President Barack Obama visited a federal prison in Oklahoma. It was a remarkable sight. No president had ever before visited a prison, or even acknowledged much compassion for prison inmates. Later in the day, House Speaker John A. Boehner, who otherwise can’t seem to agree with Obama on much of anything, vowed to push bipartisan criminal justice legislation, saying it is overdue.

Earlier this year in Illinois, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner sounded a lot like a liberal Democrat when he set a goal of reducing the state’s prison population by 25 percent in ten years. And in a report this month, a commission appointed by Rauner to lead the charge did not equivocate.

“There are far too many inmates in Illinois’ prisons,” the report states. “There is an increasing belief, both nationwide and in Illinois, that extremely high levels of incarceration are costly, unduly punitive, and at times counterproductive to the goal of preserving public safety.”

On July 27, the governor’s commission will hold a hearing in Chicago to gather suggestions on how best to reform the criminal justice system in Illinois. A second hearing will be held Downstate in September. Among the most important reforms, we believe, would be these:

* Illinois should put more money into proven programs, such as Adult Redeploy Illinois, that divert men and women from prison and into drug treatment and mental health treatment programs. Rauner, to his credit, increased the appropriation for ARI in his proposed fiscal year 2016 budget, to $10.75 million from $7 million. In the long run, it would save the state a small fortune. Illinois now spends an average of $37,000 a year for each of its roughly 48,000 prison inmates. The state spends a fraction of that amount, perhaps a tenth, for offenders out on probation, supervised and treated in their communities.

* Give judges the information and discretion they need to assess which offenders pose a danger to the community. Many lower level drug offenders, in particular, are sent to prison to serve mandatory sentences that judges would never willingly impose. Between 1989 and 2014, more than half of the state’s increase in prison admissions was due to the incarceration of the lowest level felons, a large number of them convicted of drug offenses.

* Along those lines, as State Sen. Kwame Raoul stressed to us, many of these lower level felonies should be reclassified as misdemeanors. Felony records make it extremely difficult for ex-offenders to reintegrate into society. Their inability to find jobs and housing is a significant reason many turn to crime again. Nearly half of those released from Illinois prisons return within three years.

* Downsize the state’s youth prison system. In the last ten years, the state’s youth prison population has declined from 1,600 to 700. The six youth prisons still operating — down from eight two years ago — are half empty. That’s a success story; more offenders are being treated right in their communities. Push that trend.

* Resist the natural inclination to jump on the law-and-order bandwagon and crank up mandatory minimum penalties in response to every tragic shooting. That may be good politics — it’ll win votes — but it is miserable public policy. Again, give judges discretion.

The aim of all this, increasingly agreed upon by Americans on the left and right, is to lock up dangerous people, keeping us safe, but place a far greater emphasis on rehabilitation for most other offenders. Prisons, as we have learned, are little more than finishing schools for hardened criminals.

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