Illinois: Reform Criminal Justice to Reform Spending
Criminal Justice Reform is a Good Place to Start for Illinois Spending Problem
According to Article 1, Section 11 of The Illinois Constitution, criminal sentencing requires that “all penalties shall be determined both according to the seriousness of the offense and with the objective of restoring the offender to useful citizenship.” Consensus is growing throughout the United States that our criminal justice system many times fails to achieve both of these goals. Non-violent, low risk offenders who pose little threat to our communities are still being locked up in large numbers at the expense of taxpayer dollars, livelihoods, and citizen productivity. And the astronomical average U.S. recidivism rate proves offenders are not successfully reintegrating into society.
The Land of Lincoln has largely come out in favor of reforms designed to decrease the prison population. A policy proposal that would divert non-violent offenders away from the prison system, such as those convicted of a minor drug possession or theft up to $2000, was supported by 88 percent of voters. In addition, 78 percent of all voters agreed with a similar measure that would reclassify the possession of a small amount of drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor.
This comes after the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform released their report in December of 2015 with specific suggestions regarding how to enhance the corrections system. Examples include granting judges the discretion to determine whether probation in lieu of incarceration may be appropriate for lower-level offenses and improving transition centers, which aid offenders once they are released. In Governor Bruce Rauner’s State of the State address on January 27, he acknowledged the dire need to enact the proposed legislation as a means to decrease the state’s prison population by 25 percent in the next 10 years. Illinois has realized other states, such as Texas, have adopted similar measures and saved taxpayer funds without compromising public safety.
This shift in public opinion coupled with the state’s budgetary woes creates a unique opportunity to capitalize on criminal justice reform. The governor and the Illinois legislature can agree on next to nothing – Illinois is one of only two states that have yet to pass a budget for fiscal year 2016. Since 2008, Illinois tax revenues have grown by nearly 20 percent, the largest percentage increase after only oil-rich North Dakota. The state does not have a revenue problem, but rather a spending one. Implementing commonsense criminal justice reforms, such as diversion programs and the reclassification of certain nonviolent offenses, is an issue that has support on both sides of the aisle. In a politically divided state, rallying around these reforms could help Illinois gain momentum reforming other underlying budgetary issues, such as the state’s public pension system.
There is no easy fix for Illinois’ budgetary issues that have been caused by years of irresponsible spending and unaccountable government. These proposed reforms can only go so far with a bloated state budget and a shrinking taxpayer base. According to Rich States, Poor States, Illinois has suffered from the third highest state net out-migration from 2004-2013, losing approximately 650,000 residents. The state also ranks among the lowest in terms of economic performance and outlook.
Considering approximately 95 percent of state prisoners will be released from prison eventually, it is in the public’s interest to devise better strategies to reintegrate offenders into their communities. Shortening the sentences of non-violent, low risk offenders has also proven to be a successful strategy in saving taxpayer money and lessening the devastating effects of serving lengthy prison sentences on society. Illinois has a unique opportunity to be a leader in this nationwide effort to repair the corrections system, and a chance to reestablish the legitimacy of its constitution to ensure its institutions are functioning in the way in which they were intended.