Criminal justice advocates are raising the alarm about a new set of bills in play in the current General Assembly.
Criminal justice reformers are concerned with a spate of bills that have emerged in the General Assembly this session, arguing the legislation reflects a single-minded focus on incarceration that taxpayers can no longer afford.
A memo sent to Progress Illinois and distributed to some legislators focuses on 20 bills, all of which but one have passed out of the House's Judiciary II - Criminal Law Committee, a review of the bill numbers shows. The list was compiled by an alliance of criminal justice reform organizations including the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, the Uptown People's Law Center, and Tamms Year Ten.
The legislation comes as the Illinois Department of Corrections' inmate population has swelled by more than 3,000 inmates between January 2010 and this past February, following the termination of two early release programs in a politically-charged environment last year. The rise in population has led the Quinn administration to seek more taxpayer funds in next year's state budget for IDOC staffing even as human services and other programs face cuts.
The list is by no means comprehensive, nor are bills under consideration here necessarily the "worst" in play under the capitol dome, advocates say. And not every proposal will cause the IDOC population to increase. But the bills are seen as indicative of a larger problem in Springfield, where legislators pass crime-related legislation without attention to the size of the prison population, consequences down the road, or even evidence that such measures actually reduce crime.
Many of the proposals would increase penalties for various offenses, create new crime categories, and require more mandatory imprisonment. Seven of the 20 bills deal with either child pornography or crimes of sexual nature. One would create a "Statewide Murderer Database" for people convicted of first-degree homicide. Others the reform groups are tracking include:
The memo specifically rebuts the planks in a number of the 20 bills; it says the parks bill, for example, would make it harder to rehabilitate youth by excluding them from jobs. In general, the memo presses lawmakers to shift toward comprehensive rather than piecemeal legislating about crime and get full fiscal and IDOC population impact statements completed for each crime bill.
"The legislature needs to think longer than this election cycle because the decisions they make have a decades-long impact," said Alan Mills, from the Uptown Peoples Law Center.
He used the murderer database as an example. Creating such a list, Mills said, won't stop such crimes, but will cost the state money, and make it harder for people paroled to find work and get housing. It will mean more inmates for IDOC: some number of people subject to the law won't meet its obligations, he said, meaning they'll be back in jail. Violators of the database bill would be subject to seven days in the local county jail and a $500 fine.
The penalties for criminal acts are adequate right now, said Malcolm Young, director of the Program for Prison Reentry Strategies at Northwestern University law school, as evidenced by the IDOC's population.
"Illinois, like almost every other state in the union spent the last 30 years increasing prison incarceration to the point that Illinois and most other states can't afford it anymore," he said. "With this new legislation, you're looking at exactly how it was done, how that growth was accomplished."
Young said adequate drug treatment, domestic violence counseling, summer job programs, and other social services were better ways to attack crime and start easing IDOC's population.
Sharyn Elman, an IDOC spokeswoman, said the department would follow all laws passed by the General Assembly and signed by the governor. She said eight House members have requested the department conduct fiscal and IDOC population impact statements for bills in play in the current legislative session.
Advocates are also looking to the state's relatively new Sentencing Policy Advisory Council to provide research and analysis of crime and prisons bills. The council, or SPAC for short, was created to do the following:
- prescribe sanctions proportionate to the seriousness of the offenses and permit the recognition of differences in rehabilitation possibilities among individual offenders;
- forbid and prevent the commission of offenses;
- prevent arbitrary or oppressive treatment of persons adjudicated offenders or delinquents;
- and restore offenders to useful citizenship.
In an interview with Progress Illinois this morning, the group's executive director, Kathy Saltmarsh, said SPAC is finalizing an analysis that examines arrests, convictions, and sentencing trends, and building up its capacity to analyze crime bills and sentencing policy changes the General Assembly is considering. Saltmarsh said a couple of legislators this session have already approached the group for help.
The group won't take a prescriptive approach to a bill, but rather tease out the costs and benefits of criminal justice-related legislation. "The basic threshold question for SPAC is do we have the data to do a valid analysis," Saltmarsh said. "This is about ... utilizing data to advise the process and to inform the process. It's not about us as a group offering our position on bills."
Bringing a rigorous, analytical approach into criminal justice policy is a basic value of the group, Saltmarsh went on to say.
And it is for that reason that criminal justice reformers are hopeful the group could help shift the debate about crime bills in Springfield, a subject often discussed in charged and political terms.
Mills, the attorney with the Uptown legal center, said "running every one of the bills through the SPAC process to see if there's any evidence to support what we're doing on public safety ... that's a great process. That's the discussion that ought to be done."