With Illinois' budget stretched and the outlook for the national economy looking bleaker
by the day, state leaders are seeking areas where we can cut back. But despite its size (5.2 percent of general fund
expenditures in 2007), Illinois lawmakers and voters often ...
With Illinois' budget stretched and the outlook for the national economy looking bleaker by the day, state leaders are seeking areas where we can cut back. But despite its size (5.2 percent of general fund expenditures in 2007), Illinois lawmakers and voters often turn a blind eye to our bloated corrections system. Now might be a good time to reevaluate our priorities, because smart policies could not only resurrect lives but save taxpayers' hard-earned dollars as well.
To be sure, the Illinois prison system is a giant mess. According to the Pew Center on the States' February report "One in 100" (pdf), we spent $1.125 billion on corrections in FY 2007, an average of $24,831 per inmate. For a comparison, the state spent 51 cents on corrections for every dollar it spent on higher education. A lot of those resources were devoted to staffing; in 2006, 10.3 percent of the state's workforce worked in jails and prisons.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of those housed aren't a threat to the public. Malcolm Young, the executive director of the John Howard Association, says studies show Illinois' average incarceration rate is similar to other Midwestern states, signaling the state’s sentencing laws and practices are comparable to others in the region. That being said, Illinois incarcerates a disproportionate number of former inmates who violate their “conditional release” (i.e. their parole) as well as a staggering amount of low level drug offenders. Of the former, Young says many of these violations are technical in nature – a parolee fails to report to a supervisor or submits a dirty urine sample – and aren’t the result of new crimes being committed. To his credit, Gov. Blagojevich has kept a lid on this type of recidivism in the past few years.
When it comes to those drug-related offenses, Illinois is out of the mainstream. A 2006 paper (PDF) by Roosevelt University's Institute for Metropolitan Affairs ranked Illinois first in the per capita incarceration of African-Americans convicted of drug possession and second in the incarceration of individuals for drug possession. Young says that a very large number of the state’s drug arrests and prosecutions take place in Cook County -- where the police department and state prosecutors have emphasized tough enforcement -- and they disproportionately affect people of color.
What would help? The Christian Science Monitor editorial board says drug courts are a logical alternative, a policy Illinois offers, but that the Institute for Metropolitan Affairs would like to see increased. Another improvement would be to give judges the ability to determine the appropriate sentencing length for offenders as well as provide services for the formerly incarcerated to re-enter society. The state should also explore viable employment alternatives for state employees that currently work in the corrections system. Those investments would undoubtedly pay off in the long-run.