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Opinion: Packing Illinois prisons tears families apart

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On Thursday, President Barack Obama became the first sitting American president to visit a federal prison. His visit, intended to raise awareness of the need for criminal justice reform, was preceded earlier this week by a speech he delivered at NAACP’s annual convention echoing that same message.

In his remarks, Obama cited a saddening statistic: “The U.S. is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.” The incarceration rate in the U.S. is four times higher than authoritarian, anti-democratic nations like China.

Too many people behind bars is a problem we know all too well in Illinois. The state has one of the top-ten largest correctional populations in the country, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. And it’s tearing apart families; 62 percent of prison inmates in Illinois have one or more children. These kids grow up in broken homes, scarred for life by an absent parent. They’re usually less successful in adulthood, as a result.

These facts beg the question: Does each person in prison really belong there?


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It’s a question Gov. Bruce Rauner’s criminal justice reform commission will tackle as it seeks to lower Illinois’ prison population by 25 percent over the next decade.

According to a recent report by the commission, 55 percent of the growth in Illinois’ prison population from 1989 to 2014 was from people convicted of Class 4 felonies – the lowest-level felony class. Most of these convictions were for nonviolent drug offenses.

This is problematic for a number of reasons. First, people who struggle with drug addiction or mental health issues need treatment, not punishment. Prisons do a poor job of providing this needed treatment, which addresses the root causes of crime.

Next, when ex-offenders leave prison, they need to be able to support themselves and their families. But the law locks ex-offenders out of hundreds of occupations. They also can be ineligible for housing, student loans and other resources to establish their lives.

Third, the more taxpayers spend on non-violent offenders, the fewer resources available to address truly serious, violent crimes.

So how do we fix this? The conversation starts with rethinking what prisons are for, and asking: Is the goal of our criminal justice system to warehouse people who make mistakes, or to ensure public safety and reform those who have a willingness to change?

Illinois can look to its state constitution for guidance on that question. Criminal punishment, it says, should be tailored  “according to the seriousness of the offense” and aim toward “restoring the offender to useful citizenship.” In practical terms, that means rehabilitation.

Illinois must do a better job at treating some of the root causes of crime, including drug addiction and mental health; it needs to make strides to lower the number of people who return to prison over and over again; and it needs reduce unnecessarily punitive sentences.

Illinois should make more use of programs such as Adult Redeploy, which diverts nonviolent offenders from prison. Instead of being placed in prison, offenders are assigned to drug courts, mental health treatment, and other alternatives at the local level. Not only is this smarter, it’s more cost effective than prison. The program has already saved the state nearly $50 million since January 2011.

Illinois needs to reevaluate sentencing nonviolent offenders so harshly. One change would be to change sentencing policy for low-level drug offenses, as states like Utah, Mississippi, and Wyoming have already done. Illinois could save tens of millions by treating low-level drug offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies, and connecting violators to drug treatment instead of incarceration.

The process of reform will take years, just like our current system of mass incarceration took years to build. But the fact that other states, including South Carolina, Georgia and Texas have enacted major reforms of their own suggests that Illinois can reduce its prison population while also cutting crime.

In a time of partisan strife, chances for collaboration seem few and far between. But restoring families, protecting communities and fixing lives is not a partisan issue. Everyone on the political spectrum – liberal, conservative or libertarian – can agree the time for criminal justice reform is here.

The U.S. must be more than a leader in incarceration. And Illinois can and must be a leader in this charge.

Bryant Jackson-Green is a criminal justice reform policy analyst at the Illinois Policy Institute.

Email: bjackson@illinoispolicy.org

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