JHA Response to Governor Rauner’s State of the State Address

On February 4, 2015, the Governor laid out his plan for criminal justice reform in his state of the state address, and a written agenda, “The Illinois Turnaround.” A critical feature of the Governor’s reform agenda is to work towards reducing Illinois’ prison population of over 49,000 prisoners by 25 percent over the next ten years. The John Howard Association of Illinois (JHA), the state’s oldest and only independent non-partisan prison watchdog group, applauds the Governor’s commitment to this vital objective. Evidence shows that overreliance on incarceration for the past 40 years has undermined the fiscal and social health of our communities, drained our state and nation of critical resources, and magnified racial and economic inequities without appreciably improving public safety. Today, a majority of Americans support moving away from ineffective, costly policies that drive up the prison population, such as mandatory-minimum sentencing and imprisonment for non-violent and drug offenses. The Governor’s pledge to reduce Illinois’ prison population reflects this consensus that mass incarceration is a problem in itself, and not a viable answer to crime control.

The Governor also acknowledged the reality that conditions in Illinois’ prisons are unacceptable and unsafe for prisoners and staff. To address this issue, the Governor pledged to hire more correctional officers. JHA commends the Governor for drawing attention to the fact that Illinois prisons lack sufficient staffing and resources to function safely and humanely. We also agree that more correctional officers are needed to maintain prison safety, and minimize the exorbitant costs of staff overtime pay. However, hiring additional correctional staff alone will not resolve these issues. Safety in Illinois prisons is undermined not only by lack of security staff, but by chronic understaffing in all areas, including medical, mental health, rehabilitative programming, education, record keeping, and maintenance and repair. Allocating the funds needed to fill critical staff positions will be extremely expensive. rom a practical standpoint, the only way to improve prison safety and conditions without exponentially increasing costs is to reduce the size of the population.

To realize the goal of reducing Illinois’ prison population, the Governor proposes enacting sentencing reform, restructuring parole and reentry, and investing more resources in diversion programs to reduce the prison population. Specifically, the Governor endorses measures that will: (1) reduce the penalties for non-violent offenses and reform the Criminal Code to reflect greater proportionality in sentencing; and (2) reinvest resources in Adult Redeploy, the state-wide diversion program that has successfully diverted 2,000 non-violent offenders from prison by establishing financial incentives for counties to provide community-based treatment in lieu of incarceration.

JHA recognizes these are important steps on the road to improving Illinois’ criminal justice system, and we support the Governor’s proposed reforms. JHA also commends the Governor’s pledge to foster bipartisanship to accomplish criminal justice reforms. At the same time, we believe the Governor, in collaboration with the Legislature, must go much further for Illinois to realize the goal of a safe, humane, and cost-effective criminal justice system. Meaningful criminal justice reform, significant cost savings, and reductions in incarceration and recidivism cannot reasonably be accomplished without comprehensively addressing deficiencies that exist at every stage of our criminal justice system— from charging and sentencing, through imprisonment, through parole and reentry. With these goals in mind, JHA recommends that the Governor and Legislature take the following actions:

(1) Enact comprehensive sentencing reforms that:

  • shorten the length of sentences for non-violent and drug offenses, reduce the number of offenses for which a person can be sent to prison, and eliminate imprisonment as an option for juveniles adjudicated delinquent of misdemeanor offenses;

  • eliminate or reduce mandatory-minimum sentencing and automatic sentence enhancements, including the firearm sentence enhancements;

  • repeal “truth-in-sentencing” laws, and increase opportunities for prisoners to obtain early release and earn “good time credits” off of their sentences;

  • abolish automatic transfer laws which mandate that juveniles be prosecuted as adults when they are charged with certain serious, violent offenses. Grant judges the discretion to determine whether young offenders should be prosecuted in juvenile court or adult criminal court; and

  • establish an expedited compassionate release program to allow for the early, supervised release of elderly, terminal ill prisoners who pose no threat to public safety.

(2) Reform juvenile and adult parole and reentry by:

  • reducing the length of time that juveniles are subject to Mandatory Supervised Release (“parole”);

  • mandating the use of an empirically-validated risk/ needs assessment to evaluate the factors which are proven to influence recidivism, and to create individualized case plans that address these factors both inside and outside of prison;

  • creating an explicit policy and regimen to respond to technical parole violations with non-prison alternatives (i.e., parole violations that are not based on criminal conduct, but on the failure to comply with a condition of parole); and

  • reexamining conditions of adult and juvenile supervision and restrictions on juvenile placement to determine if these create a barrier to successful reentry.

(3) Ensure that conditions of confinement are safe, humane, and meet minimum constitutional standards by:

  • allocating sufficient funding to timely fill critical staff vacancies which will protect staff and prisoners by providing adequate supervision and oversight, maintain decent housing conditions, address prisoners’ basic medical, mental health, educational, and rehabilitative needs, and reduce the costly reliance on overtime;

  • mandating that treatment programs be evaluated and grounded in evidence-based practices; and

  • requiring juvenile and adult prisons to increase their collection and publication of facility data to enhance transparency and accountability.

In making these recommendations, JHA recognizes that our prison system cannot be transformed overnight. Safely reducing Illinois’ prison population by 25 percent will require careful and comprehensive planning. Illinois’ recent experience of closing prisons, without first executing a plan to reduce population, was detrimental to prisoners and staff, and did not fully realize anticipated cost savings. To safely reduce the costs of incarceration and improve outcomes for justice involved individuals, Illinois needs to make hard choices and have strong leadership. We support the Governor in this important undertaking.

For more information:
Jennifer Vollen-Katz
Executive Director
John Howard Association

Elliana Given2015