Illinois Bar Journal

April 2015Volume 103Number 4Page 10

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Criminal justice reform commission seeks to shrink prison population

Governor Rauner's Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform has a goal of reducing the population of Illinois' overcrowded prisons by 25 percent over 10 years.

One plank of Governor Rauner's campaign platform was criminal justice reform. On February 11, 2015, he issued Executive Order 15-14, which establishes the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform.

The order states that the Department of Corrections spends $1.3 billion a year, with an additional $131 million spent on the Department of Juvenile Justice. It also notes that Illinois has a high rate of recidivism, with 48 percent of adults and 53.5 percent of juveniles returning to state custody within three years of release.

Additionally, Illinois' prison system is at 150 percent capacity; the prison population has increased 700 percent over the last 40 years, while the crime rate has decreased 20 percent over the same period. Rauner has tasked the Commission with proposing solutions to this problem.

Executive Order 15-14 observes that overcrowding in our prisons threatens the safety of staff and inmates, thwarting efforts to rehabilitate prisoners for their return to society. Article I, Section 11 of the Illinois Constitution states that the purpose of prison is to rehabilitate offenders and mete out punishments that fit the crime.

In an effort to address these problems, the newly formed Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform has been tasked with researching and suggesting bipartisan, data-driven reforms to decrease crime and recidivism while maintaining public safety. The Commission's goal is to increase public safety and reduce Illinois's prison population by 25 percent over the next 10 years. Its first report is due July 1 and its final report is due December 31 of this year.

Data-driven approach

The 28-member panel has not met yet, according to State Appellate Defender Michael Pelletier. The panel will be led by Public Safety Director Rodger Heaton. Pelletier is pleased to be appointed to the commission and feels encouraged that the governor sees the need for criminal justice reform.

State Senator Kwame Raoul, who is also a member of the Commission, applauds the governor for embracing the issue in a serious manner. Senator Raoul notes that "we often look heavily into reentry [recidivism] without thinking about entry" into the system. A reform program needs to be smart about who is sent to the Department of Corrections, he says.

Both Pelletier and Raoul point to programs like Adult Redeploy and Redeploy Illinois, two diversion programs that have been successful in reducing recidivism among adults and juveniles. Pelletier observes that Adult Redeploy has already saved $54 million in recidivism-related costs. The "solution is not warehousing and incarcerating people," says Pelletier.

Raoul says the two most important things about Rauner's plan are that it sets a goal and that solutions are to be based on data-driven and evidence-based approaches. "It is important to get close to right-sizing our prison population," he says. It is also important that the commission use collected data and evidence of success in other jurisdictions to avoid taking a "willy nilly approach" to criminal justice reform.

Pelletier says that the Redeploy programs have produced a wealth of criminal-justice data. He also notes that the Sentencing Policy Advisory Council and the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority provide data that can greatly assist the Commission.

Some members of the ISBA's criminal law discussion group have voiced concerns that there is only one person from the criminal defense bar on the list of Commission members. However, one cannot "read too much into someone's philosophy based on what they've done" warns Raoul.

A 'country of incarceration'

Raoul and Pelletier agree that the trend towards mandatory minimum sentencing and "tough on crime" policies have led to the current problems in Illinois' corrections system. We are a "country of incarceration" says Raoul. However, the trends that caused the crisis are starting to reverse course.

"It is remarkable how people who've been around have changed their view on these issues." Raoul believes that voices are trending towards fixing a broken system; the issue has become more bipartisan.

Raoul says one factor that contributed to the dramatic increase in prison populations was legislators being afraid of being seen as soft on crime. Bringing good minds together to tackle the problem "gives legislators protection" to take on the task of criminal justice reform.

Raoul and Pelletier both hope the commission will review the statutory sentencing scheme. They also agree that community-based programs will allow Illinois to deal with serious criminal-justice challenges like drug abuse and inadequate mental health treatment.

Matthew Hector is a senior associate at Sulaiman Law Group, Ltd.

Member Comments (2)

I'm still wondering why this commission has not ONE practicing criminal defense attorney on the panel.

This needs to be corrected sooner rather than later.

In 1993, Gov. Jim Edgar created a Task Force on Crime and Corrections and testimony was limited to those invited to testify, basically senators, reps, sheriffs, etc. who made the criminal justice problems with drug-war-driven crime and tough drug-war sentencing. Hopefully, the Gov. Rauner will do better. A good starting point would be for task force/commission members to read my commentary regarding the 1993 Task Force at and

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