In Springfield, we know there are going to be some tough fights ahead, but we believe the time is right for Illinois Democrats and Republicans to put aside partisan disagreements and fix our broken criminal justice system.
Nationally, leaders from the right and left, from Newt Gingrich to President Obama, agree that the U.S. needs to reduce the country’s costly overreliance on incarceration.
Since the 1970s, the rate of incarceration in the U.S. has more than quadrupled. Our country has only 5 percent of the planet’s population, but 25 percent of its prisoners held in the largest prison system the world has ever seen. This amounts to almost 2.3 million people incarcerated at an annual cost of more than $80 billion.
While Red and Blue states like Texas and New York have begun to take action by passing safe and effective criminal justice reforms, Illinois has lagged behind. As a result, our prison system has devolved into one of the most crowded in the country.
The Illinois Department of Corrections holds almost 49,000 people in a system designed for 32,000. The prison system is also the state’s most expensive form of punishment, costing taxpayers $1.3 billion a year.
Our prison system is not simply overcrowded and expensive, but it is also an ineffective tool for controlling crime.
Let us be clear: We absolutely believe that prison should be used to punish and rehabilitate offenders who pose a violent threat to public safety.
The problem is that research and experience have shown that our use of prison has reached a point of diminishing returns. Our current incarceration policies not only fail to effectively reduce crime, but for lower-risk offenders, prison is an expensive way to make them into more serious criminals.
We cannot afford to continue this dangerous status quo.
We need to shift our focus so that more ex-offenders are able to become productive members of society. The recidivism rate in Illinois right now hovers around 50 percent, creating a tragic cycle that needs to change.
To fix our broken criminal justice system, we need to make some fundamental reforms to our laws and policies, but first we have to change our politics.
Over the past 40 years, politicians from both parties have built our overcrowded prison system by passing laws that have needlessly enhanced penalties in order to be perceived as tough on crime, but that have primarily increased the money we spend on prisons and the number of people that cycle in and out of our correctional facilities.
At the same time, politicians have too often reacted to crime by pouring taxpayer money into well-meaning but ineffective programs.
As stewards of the state’s criminal justice system, Republicans and Democrats have to abandon these shortsighted responses that only perpetuate a vicious and costly cycle. We have to stop doing what merely feels right and instead embrace a careful, comprehensive, and data-driven strategic vision of how we can make the fairest and most effective criminal justice system possible.
That’s what the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform sets out to do.
Created by executive order, the commission brings together experts and stakeholders throughout the state to examine how we can improve all aspects of our criminal justice system based on what works.
To ensure the commission doesn’t simply duplicate prior reform efforts or offer unproductive recommendations, it has been given a concrete goal: Formulate a plan by the end of this year to safely reduce Illinois’ prison population by 25% by 2025.
We believe this goal is ambitious, realizable, and necessary. We call upon all of the state’s elected officials, Democrats and Republicans, to support the Commission’s work and ensure that we’re making the best use of our limited resources to strengthen public safety throughout Illinois.
Republican Bruce Rauner was elected governor last fall. Democrat Kwame Raoul is a state senator from Chicago, first appointed in 2004 to represent the South Side seat vacated by Barack Obama.