May 31, 2017: Prison Reform and Recidivism Reduction Efforts Thwarted by Illinois Budget Impasse

Illinois, the fifth largest state in the United States, is on the verge of entering a third year without a state budget; this is the longest any state has gone without a budget in modern history.  As May 2017 draws to a close, the State is running a deficit of close to $6 billion, owes approximately $14.5 billion in overdue bills and will owe an estimated $800 million in late fees and interest payments on these overdue bills.[1] The inability of Governor Rauner and the Illinois General Assembly to finalize and pass a budget has been extremely detrimental to the citizens of this state.  Statewide cuts have landed many Illinoisans in grim situations due to reductions in services, programs and increased job losses.  The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), like most state agencies, has been gravely affected by the budget impasse; our prisons have experienced the crippling effects of the ongoing budget crisis in terms of service, treatment and program reductions and eliminations, lost contracts, unattended physical plant issues, and in countless other ways.  

Without a state budget prisons are struggling to meet even the most basic of needs. While IDOC has been able to keep the lights on and the water running inside the facilities, important educational programs and vocational training have been cut, which is not only detrimental to those hoping to participate in them but also to Illinois as a whole given that these programs have been proven to increase the success for people leaving prisons and reentering society.[2] It is worth noting that in the final report released this year by the Governor’s Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform it was recommended that rehabilitative programming inside Illinois prisons be increased, including education and job training, to both improve reentry success and expand inmate eligibility for programming credits, which is aimed at addressing the issues and cost of prison overcrowding.[3]  Illinois knows that  it costs far more to incarcerate a person than it does to educate him or her.  If people can get jobs upon release from prison, the rates of recidivism and reincarceration go down, which leads to long term financial savings.  Increased employment opportunities come from the education and vocational training provided by Illinois’ public universities and community colleges, which contract with IDOC to provide these programs inside the prisons.

Like so many important programs and services which target the neediest citizens, many of the prison educational programs have been reduced or eliminated. In the past two years, three colleges, Richland, Kaskaskia College and Danville Area Community College, suspended their college and vocational offerings inside IDOC facilities, leaving only one remaining provider of post-secondary and vocational training in state prisons, Lake Land College. While the waitlists for programs continue to grow with the names of inmates who hoped to leave prison with college course work or a vocational certificate, Illinois continues to function without a budget to the financial and human detriment of both prison inmates and free citizens. The lack of a budget has not only led to most colleges ending classes and programs due to nonpayment; in some cases, the result has been terminating contracts with IDOC altogether.  This will have a long term detrimental impact on educational and vocational programming inside Illinois prisons because reinstating these contracts and programs will be time consuming and administratively burdensome.  

To be sure, the students at Illinois’ public universities and community colleges, not just those who are incarcerated, are among the biggest victims of this unprecedented budget standoff. As of May 30, 2017, Northeastern Illinois University announced the need to lay off 180 staff in order to make up a $10.8 million shortfall in the school’s budget, Chicago State University announced it will not be able to cover low income students’ tuition waivers, teacher development programs have been cut, and the list of schools, programs and services felled by Illinois’ budget situation grows ever longer. 

As JHA noted a year ago, this interminable budget impasse has had a dire impact on one of Illinois’ most vulnerable populations, the incarcerated, who have limited access to higher education programming.[4] Prisons have been unable to provide the most basic of rehabilitative services, even when they have been proven to reduce high recidivism rates and related costs of reincarceration, and improve outcomes in terms of post-release success. For those individuals seeking to invest in themselves to the benefit of their families and communities, prison education or vocational programming can be the first step in that direction. Not only are the programs cost-effective and successful, they are also necessary if Illinois wishes to reduce its incarceration rates and overall spending on prisons. The current budget deadlock has and will continue to hurt the lives of thousands of men and women in State custody; it is past time for Governor Rauner and the state legislature to come to an agreement for the greater good of Illinois.

[2] Research findings are clear “that providing inmates education programs and vocational training helps keep them from returning to prison and improves their future job prospects.”   Davis, Lois M., Robert Bozick, Jennifer L. Steele, Jessica Saunders and Jeremy N. V. Miles. Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education: A Meta-Analysis of Programs That Provide Education to Incarcerated Adults. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2013. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR266.html.

[3] Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform Final Report, December 2016, http://www.icjia.org/cjreform2015/pdf/CJSR_Final_Report_Dec_2016.pdf

[4] See http://www.thejha.org/statement20160629