OP-ED: Governor Bruce Rauner signed an executive order on Wednesday to establish the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform. Given that Illinois’ prison population has grown by 700 percent in the past 40 years, the commission will make recommendations to reduce the state’s prison population by 25 percent.
At the same time, the Illinois General Assembly’s Joint Criminal Justice Reform Committee, created last May and chaired by State Representative Michael J. Zalewski (D-23) and State Senator Michael Noland (D-22), recognizes the need to reduce incarceration of individuals with non-violent offenses and those with mental illness and addiction.
These initiatives by the Governor’s office and the General Assembly are critical and timely. They can be accelerated by leveraging proven solutions already working in Illinois.
First, sound reforms must recognize that the Illinois prison system is one of largest under-funded health operations in the country. Half of adults in prison have a mental health problem, and two thirds of adults in jail and prison have a substance use disorder requiring intervention. Many have co-occurring conditions. However, failed policies of the past 40 years have favored incarceration over treatment, driving prison and jail crowding and the clogging of courts.
Second, to slow the flood of non-violent offenders who churn through Illinois prisons, prosecutors and judges across Illinois must have means to systematically identify and divert non-violent defendants who have substance use or mental health conditions out of the justice system and into licensed treatment programs in the community.
More than 31,000 people were admitted to Illinois prisons in FY 13 (the most recently published data), with an estimated 57 percent sentenced for non-violent offenses eligible for diversion. Meanwhile, Illinois is paying $21,000 per year to incarcerate each of these men and women, when treatment and case management are only one-fifth that cost. No Entry diversion policies and programs—from “drug schools” to mandated community-based treatment with case management—reduce recidivism, save system and taxpayer costs, and address the behavioral health and social issues that often contribute to criminal behavior.
Last year, for example, TASC (Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities) diverted more than 2,000 non-violent defendants away from prison and into supervised drug treatment in the community, saving the State of Illinois $35 million.
We know what works. To achieve real reform and cost savings, Illinois must bring these proven approaches to scale.
President & CEO