Illinois prison overcrowding and costs prompt new, "smart" approach to offenders

Jun 10, 2015

Thanks to concerns about the expense of prison overcrowding in Illinois but also due to increased understanding of effective approaches to reduce recidivism and to keep juveniles away from prison, Illinois state government has been on a decade-long run of enacting “smart on crime” legislation.

It began with the 2004 passage of legislation to create Redeploy Illinois, a pilot program in a handful of counties agreeing to a 25 percent reduction in the number of teens sent to state prisons and, in exchange, receiving grants to pay for rehabilitation and social supports for those youth in their home communities. Since expanding to more than 30 additional counties, Redeploy Illinois has saved the state millions and kept more than 1,200 youth out of the prison system – a step that has given them a second chance at success in life.

In addition to saving the lives of many young children, and keeping their families intact, Redeploy Illinois has helped the state reduce the number of youth in prisons from more than 1,600 a decade ago to fewer than 700 today, saving money and permitting two juvenile prisons to be closed.

The success of juvenile Redeploy Illinois led to the creation of an Adult Redeploy Illinois program, which now provides economic incentives to 39 counties with programming for non-violent adult offenders being diverted from state prisons.

The long list of reforms includes raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 16 to 17; instituting an early release program for non-violent prisoners who complete drug treatment; support for after school programs and peer juries to address discipline problems in middle schools and high schools; and the creation of several specialty courts with an emphasis on rehabilitation of drug offenders and other non-violent criminals.

The changes have come with bipartisan support, and there are signs the trend will continue under the new administration. During the Governor’s first month in office, he issued an executive order creating the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform, and the commission members have begun work on a plan that will lead to a 25 percent reduction in the state’s prison population by 2025.

Although the spring legislative session has been afflicted with a good deal of partisan acrimony, legislators from both parties once again found common ground in criminal justice reforms.

Among the most significant reforms passed this spring was a bill to end the automatic transfer of some children from juvenile court to adult criminal court. Championed by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, the House Bill 3718 would require certain crimes be reviewed by juvenile court judges. If Gov. Rauner signs the bill, it could result in a 70 percent reduction in automatic transfers of juveniles to adult court in Cook County, where last year 223 youth were transferred to adult court.

The list of approved reforms also includes bills requiring authorities to look for appropriate placement of children under 13, instead of sending those very young children straight to a local detention center; a prohibition on counties sending youth with only misdemeanors to state juvenile prisons; and end to the practice of counties sending young people with new charges back to state prisons for parole violations and instead requiring counties to keep them locally while awaiting new trials.

Here’s a closer look at juvenile and criminal justice legislation awaiting action by the governor:

Senate Bill 1560 (Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, and Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook) would no longer allow juvenile misdemeanants to be sent to state juvenile prisons. Because low-level juvenile offenders sent to prisons often advance to more serious crimes after incarceration, public safety can be improved by keeping them out of prisons and delivering rehabilitation services in their local communities. The Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) has estimated the law change would reduce commitments by about 110 youth each year.

SB 1560 also would require county jail or detention center confinement of individuals on aftercare (parole) from DJJ and charged with new crimes. On any give day, about 70 youth – many beyond juvenile age but not yet 21 – in DJJ prisons have been sent there because they have been charged with new crimes.

Rather than staying in the county where they are charged, counties have been able send those youth to state prisons due to parole violations. When they must appear in local courts for hearings on the new crime, DJJ must transport them to and from the home county. The change would help DJJ focus on those youth it is intended to serve and who have the best chance at rehabilitative programs and services, instead of those who are at high risk of being sentenced to the Department of Corrections (DOC).

House Bill 3718 (Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, and Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago) would end the automatic transfer of many youth to adult prisons and would restore judicial review by a juvenile judge of youth charged with crimes that do not involve physical harm to a person, including armed robbery with a firearm, aggravated vehicular hijacking and UUW. Murder, aggravated criminal sexual assault and aggravated battery with a firearm would remain automatic, but only for 16 and 17 year olds. For youth ages 15 and younger, no charge would result in automatic transfer. The automatic transfer reform responds to the Illinois Supreme Court’s expressed concern about the lack of judicial discretion in statutes requiring the automatic transfer of some juveniles to adult criminal court.

House Bill 2471 (House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, and Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park) would eliminate mandatory life-without-parole sentences for youth under 18 at the time of the offense and would require judges to consider specific age-related factors in mitigation at the time of sentencing. It also would give judges a broader set of choices when sentencing children who are transferred to adult court.

House Bill 2567 (Rep. Robyn Gabel, D-Evanston, and Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago) would help keep children under the age of 13 out of juvenile detention. Before sending a child under the age of 13 to detention, local authorities would be required to contact a local provider in the Comprehensive Community-Based Youth Services (CCBYS) network. If the CCBYS provider were not able to enroll the child in a program to receive services, the child would be placed in detention.

House Bill 3141 (Rep. Chad Hays, R-Catlin, and Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon) would require DJJ to issue an annual report detailing expenditures and data about youth in state prisons. It also would require quarterly reports to the governor and state legislators.

House Bill 218 (Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, and Sen. Michael Noland, D-Elgin) would make possession of 15 grams of marijuana — about 30 joints — punishable by a fine of up to $125. The reduction in incarceration would save the state about $30 million annually, according to DOC.

Senate Bill 100 (Sen. Kimberly LIghtford, D-Chicago, and Rep. William Davis, D-East Hazel Crest) would place limitations on expulsions, disciplinary removals to alternative schools and out-of-school suspensions of longer than three days and is intended to encourage other behavioral and disciplinary interventions in schools that allow children to continue receiving an education.

House Bill 3149 (Rep. John Cabello, R-Machesney Park, and Sen. Terry Link, D-Waukegan) would assist job-seeking men and women with criminal records. Those who earn a vocational certification, GED, high school diploma or some other degree would be able to petition the court to seal the record of certain non-violent convictions prior to the statutorily required 4-year waiting period.

House Bill 3475 (Rep. Rita Mayfield, D-Waukegan, and Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Chicago) expands eligibility for Certificates of Good Conduct, which are issued to rehabilitated job seekers after a rehabilitation review of the record of a person who has committed certain offenses. Eligibility for the program would expand to include people who have committed non-sex-related forcible felonies.

House Bill 494 (Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, and Sen. Patricia Van Pelt, D-Chicago) would remove a variety of non-violent offenses from being absolute or long-term bars to employment at schools. Former offenders who have served time for certain nonviolent crimes, including shoplifting and possession of over 30 grams of marijuana, would be able to apply and compete for jobs after a waiting period either post-conviction or post-parole, depending on the offense.

Senate Bill 1304 (Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, and Rep. Elgie R. Sims Jr., D-Chicago) would create guidelines for use of body cameras by police, expand training on use of force by police, ban chokeholds and require an independent investigation of officer-involved deaths.

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I am an Illinois educator of almost 40 years.  I have yet to retire as I do not want to retire to a black hole and be a burden to…

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