Despite a huge deficit, state lawmakers have largely ignored proposals to reform the state's criminal justice system -- and save substantial short- and long-term costs in the process.
Illinois' prison population and recidivism rate may have dropped marginally in 2009, but the U.S. still has a long way to go before the incarceration rate reaches a sustainable or rational level.
In 2008, federal, state, and local governments spent about $75 billion on corrections. New research (PDF) from the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that between 1988 and 2008, state spending on incarceration jumped by $40 billion annually, despite no comparable increase in violent crime. And as this graph from the report shows, roughly 93 percent of those costs are now covered by state and local governments, whose budgets have been stretched extremely thin these past two years by the economic recession:
Illinois is no exception. The Land of Lincoln witnessed a 44 percent drop in violent crime and 30 percent dip in property-related crime between 1995 and 2007. Yet, the incarceration rate grew by 20 percent, driven by punitive sentencing laws and stringent efforts to lock up criminals for minor offenses. Indeed, the FY 2009 Department of Corrections' budget was $1.44 billion, greater than all other departments with the exception of human services and health care.
The good news is that smart policy changes could generate huge savings for cash-strapped taxing bodies. On average, about 50 percent of prison inmates in state lockup committed non-violent offenses. The number is even higher (75 percent) at the local level. CEPR estimates that reducing the number of non-violent offenders in our prisons and jails by half -- which would bring the rate back to its historical norm -- would save states and counties $14.8 billion per year. If Illinois trims that inmate pool by half, our back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that the state government alone would save roughly $300 million annually -- money that could then be funneled into rehabilitation programs or back into the strained General Revenue Fund.
What's more, academics and advocates have devised a multitude of serious reform proposals that are just waiting for the General Assembly to utilize. These range from reviewing individual prisoners’ cases for parole and early release consideration to sentencing law changes to the expansion of diversionary drug courts and community-based programs for adults and juveniles. But all rely on the ability of lawmakers to drop the "tough-on-crime" rhetoric and admit that "America's war on drugs is over -- we lost," as the Sun-Times editorial board wrote this morning:
Medical marijuana should be legalized. Pot more generally should be decriminalized. And the carnage in our streets and in Mexico begs that we rethink our nation's approach to the sale and use of more serious drugs as well. [...]
We fill our prisons with young men who have committed drug-related crimes -- a shameful waste of human potential and the taxpayers' money -- but nothing changes. For thousands of high school dropouts who might otherwise be washing dishes for minimum wage, the money in drugs is just too good.
If legislators are serious about slimming the state's long-term debt -- not to mention treating their fellow citizens humanely -- now is the time and make some sensible criminal justice reforms.