The Cost of Prison Overcrowding in Illinois

While most states are currently reducing their prison populations, Illinois has added more than 4,000 inmates to its prisons, bringing its total population to almost 49,000. (See Figure 1)

While this recent growth stems from the suspension of some early release programs, the problem of prison overcrowding is rooted in decades of tough on crime legislation, the war on drugs, and harsh sentencing practices.

These policies have not only led to record numbers of people being locked up. They have also drained Illinois of vital resources, while having only a minimal effect on the crime rate.

In 2009, taxpayers spent more than $1 billion on state prisons, with an average cost of almost $25,000 an inmate.

It would be some comfort if this money increased public safety, but that’s not the case. Almost 70 percent of all Illinois inmates are in prison for non-violent crimes and about 50 percent of all offenders serve six months or less.

Research shows that when low-level non-violent offenders are incarcerated instead of given supervised release, they are more likely to commit new crimes once they are released from prison.

Recently IDOC has taken important steps to reduce costs and protect the public. For instance, as part of the Crime Reduction Act of 2009, IDOC is working with counties to divert non-violent offenders to community-based programs, which are both less expensive and more effective at rehabilitating these kinds of offenders than the state prison system.

However, when it comes to controlling costs, IDOC can only do so much. If Illinois is serious about reducing the amount of taxpayer dollars it spends on prisons, then politicians, policy makers, and the public must commit themselves to reforming the criminal justice system, from arrest to release. Otherwise, we can only expect to spend even more money on an expensive prison system.