4 criminal justice reforms that Illinois should model

Police chiefs and prosecutors increasingly support policies to reduce unnecessary incarceration.

By Bryant Jackson-Green
Illinois Policy

A new coalition of more than 130 police chiefs, federal and state prosecutors, and state attorneys general is advocating for reforms to the criminal-justice system that would reduce crowded prison systems and save taxpayer dollars, all while improving public safety.

Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy summarized the problem best when he said:

“Mass incarceration breaks up families. It gives people felony convictions and makes it so they can’t get jobs. It sometimes trains them to be worse criminals while they’re in jail.”

In an op-ed for USA Today, the co-chairs of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration, McCarthy and former New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas, recommend four steps to reorient criminal-justice systems nationwide:

  • Alternatives to arrest: “First, we ask our police and prosecutors to develop alternatives to arrest and prosecution. Often, the autopilot cycle of arrest, incarceration and prison is not the most effective means of crime control. We especially need to ensure that people suffering from mental illness and drug addiction are diverted to treatment instead of arrested and jailed. For example, Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program provides treatment and social services to non-violent drug offenders instead of jail time. The program costs significantly less than jail, and participants are almost 60 percent less likely to be rearrested.”
  • Reduce the number of felonies: “Second, we urge legislators to reduce the number of crimes on the books. Low-level crimes, such as possession of small amounts of marijuana or shoplifting, are felonies in many states. These should be misdemeanors. When an offense is classified as a felony, it entails more prison time and makes it more difficult to transition back into society. And pursuing prison time for petty offenses means our officers and prosecutors spend less time responding to violence and murders.”
  • Reduce or eliminate mandatory-minimum sentencing laws: “Third, we must reduce, or in some cases eliminate, overly punitive mandatory minimum sentencing laws, especially for drug and non-violent crimes. Research shows that arbitrarily increasing time served does not help keep the public safe. Common sense tells us that putting a first-time, non-violent drug offender behind bars has little benefit. We urge Washington and our state legislatures to take up such changes, especially for non-violent and drug offenders.”
  • Strengthen ties between law enforcement and communities: “Finally, we seek to strengthen ties between law enforcement agencies and the communities we serve. Collaboration with neighborhood residents builds trust, which prevents crime instead of increasing unnecessary arrests. At a time of tension between law enforcement and many communities, this commitment can help address longstanding issues of racial inequity and is integral to a smarter approach for crime fighting and public order.”

Illinois can learn a lot from these suggestions. Though the state has made some progress on issues such as reforming juvenile transfer laws, expanding eligibility for record sealing, bail reform for certain offenses, and the use of body cameras by police, Illinois spent a record $1.4 billion on state prisons in 2015, and led the nation in overcrowded prisons in 2014, with prisons at 150 percent capacity.

But leaders on both sides of the aisle have joined the reform conversation. Examples include Illinois state Sen. Michael Connelly, R-Wheaton, and Illinois state Rep. Scott Drury, D-Highwood, both former prosecutors, as well as state Rep. John Cabello, R-Loves Park, who has over 20 years of experience as a police officer. All serve on the governor’s commission tasked with safely reducing the state’s prison population by 25 percent by 2025. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has also spoken about the need to rethink how to treat offenders, especially those who would be better rehabilitated through mental-health programs instead of incarceration.

With the involvement and insight of law enforcement and political leaders, Illinois can make strides toward reducing incarceration, lowering crime and saving taxpayer dollars.

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