SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Department of Corrections is making headway toward the goal of a 25 percent reduction in the state’s prison population by 2025, but continued partisan gridlock over the state budget could undermine that progress.
Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner set that goal shortly after taking office nearly two years ago and established a commission to make recommendations for criminal justice reforms to keep people out of prisons. The state’s inmate population has dropped from 48,214 on Jan. 12, 2015, the day Rauner was inaugurated, to 43,807 last week, a 9.1 percent decline.
Rauner made his case for criminal justice reform Thursday in Chicago, where he joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers to sign a bill that will ensure people being released from state prisons or juvenile detention facilities have a valid state identification card.
“Criminal justice is not just about punishment,” Rauner said. “If we think that it’s only about punishment, we will never keep the people of Illinois safe.”
The criminal justice system is about punishment and keeping dangerous criminals away from the public, Rauner said, but it’s also about providing rehabilitation so that people don’t continue committing crimes once they’re out of prison.
That idea has been a rare area of bipartisan consensus amidst Illinois’ bitter budget battles.
Prison reform advocates applauded the reduction in the state’s prison population, but they cautioned that there’s still a long way to go to achieve the governor’s goal. And the inability of Rauner and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly to come to an agreement on the state budget will only make things more difficult, they said.
“It’s great that we’re down 9 percent,” said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association, a Chicago-based prison watchdog group. “We’re seeing numbers we haven't seen in well over a decade.”
However, Vollen-Katz added, the system still is overcrowded, and “we shouldn’t rest on our laurels.”
Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago, which has used a series of lawsuits over several decades to push for reforms within the Illinois prison system, agreed with that assessment.
“This system would still be overcrowded if we had 35,000 people in it,” Mills said.
The advocates said no single change is entirely responsible for the population decline that has been achieved thus far.
It’s a combination things such as policy changes within the Department of Corrections, judges and prosecutors using their discretion in bringing cases and handing out sentences and fewer people being sent back to prison for technical parole violations, among other factors, they said.
Although there’s a national push to re-examine incarceration, Mills said Rauner deserves credit for helping change attitudes in Illinois, especially among lawmakers who might otherwise fear being labeled as “soft on crime.”
“The bully pulpit is a really important role that he can play,” Mills said. “The very fact that he says, ‘This is my goal,’ allows a lot of people who are otherwise either neutral or actually would like to do something the motivation to get it done and the feeling that they’ve got some political cover if they do it.”
The General Assembly has passed several laws, including the one Rauner signed last week, that should help continue the downward trend in the prison population.
But Vollen-Katz and Mills said achieving an additional 16 percent reduction will be more difficult because it will require addressing more controversial issues such as mandatory minimum sentences and so-called “truth in sentencing” laws, which make it harder for people to be released early for good behavior.
Making matters even more complicated is the ongoing budget impasse, which has damaged the ability to provide services both to inmates and to people outside of prison who might end up there.
One such service is Redeploy Illinois, a program designed to keep young people out of the juvenile justice system — and potentially the adult correctional system down the line — by connecting them with mental health treatment and other services.
Tyler Edmonds, the state’s attorney in Union County in southern Illinois, said funding for the program after Dec. 31 is uncertain because the state’s stopgap budget runs out and no agreement appears forthcoming.
This comes after the program went all of the state’s last fiscal year, which ended June 30, without any funding. The $4.76 million included for the program statewide in the stopgap is supposed to cover all of last year and the first six months of this fiscal year, whereas the program received $4.89 million for the prior 12 months.
“As a prosecutor in a small jurisdiction, I can tell you that if we’re not investing in programs like Redeploy, investing in our youth, then we are going to have an incredibly difficult time reducing our adult prison population,” Edmonds said.
The same can be said for community-based mental health and addiction treatment programs and other social services that have been crippled by the impasse, the prison reform advocates said.