Over the better part of the past three decades, tough-on-crime
lawmakers have routinely added stricter criminal laws to the books,
ultimately pushing more non-violent offenders into Illinois prisons.
Currently, 45,000 adults and 1,400 juveniles are behind bars and
Over the better part of the past three decades, tough-on-crime lawmakers have routinely added stricter criminal laws to the books, ultimately pushing more non-violent offenders into Illinois prisons. Currently, 45,000 adults and 1,400 juveniles are behind bars and taxpayers are stuck with a hefty bill -- almost $1.5 billion is spent annually on corrections, or 5 cents of every dollar of state general revenue funds. With state officials looking to stretch every dime these days, Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago) is trying to shift the responsibility on lawmakers to put together a cost analysis before voting on any new criminal penalties. As early as today Raoul will have a chance to move the measure, which has already passed through the House, out of a Senate legislative committee and onto the floor for a vote. The Sun-Times has more:
Any state legislator who proposes an increase in criminal penalties that would result in more people going to prison get a fiscal impact statement of what that would cost. The estimate would be made by the Department of Corrections or Department of Juvenile Justice.
In addition, the legislator would have to identify a revenue source, such as a new tax or a reallocation of money from elsewhere in the state budget, to pay the extra cost [...]
Under HB 682, the cost of expanding the prison population would be weighed against the cost of alternatives, such as drug treatment, home confinement, mental health care and drug courts. Such alternatives are less expensive, and research shows they are at least as effective in reducing crime in the long run.
Cash-strapped states across the country are also rethinking their own punative policies, which have landed one in every 100 U.S. adults behind bars at a combined state cost of $50 billion, the Public Safety Performance Project reports (PDF). Virginia was out in front of most in adopting the sort of reforms Raoul is trying to see through the Senate this week.
As the Sun-Times editorial page points out, had Illinois' own legislature considered lowering the threshold for a Class 1 felony for the manufacture or delivery of cocaine to a single gram in 1987, the state's prison budget may not have increased four times faster than its higher education budget. Meanwhile, as we've reported before, the policy has earned Illinois the dubious distinction of being first in the nation for per-capita incarceration of African-Americans on drug possession convictions.
While it's unfortunate that money -- and not a morale imperative -- is driving this debate, the reform is welcome. And in the end, the cerebral approach may be just what it takes to ensure that Illinois prisons are reserved for violent offenders, not stacked with impoverished youth, prostitutes, drug addicts, and the mentally ill.