First steps taken in state’s criminal justice overhaul

By Bryant Jackson-Green
Illinois Policy

Gov. Bruce Rauner joined with lawmakers on March 2 to introduce three bills meant to begin reforms to the state’s criminal-justice system. All three proposals come from the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform’s first report. Reforms include:

  • Senate Bill 3368 – Issue state ID cards to ex-offenders upon release from prison: IDs are required for obtaining legal employment, housing and other basic needs in Illinois, but many offenders don’t have them – which makes re-entry even more difficult. This bill directs the Illinois Department of Corrections, or IDOC, and the secretary of state to provide ID cards to ex-offenders upon release from prison.
  • Senate Bill 3164 – Discourage prison for low-level offenders: For low-risk offenders, incarceration often isn’t a cost-effective use of public resources. This bill would require judges to review a presentencing report, and explain at sentencing why incarceration, rather than an alternative such as probation, is appropriate when a low-level offender hasn’t been on probation previously and has no history of violent crime.
  • Senate Bill 3294 – Expand use of electronic monitoring: Right now, over 10,000 inmates are sent to IDOC for stays of less than a year. This process often wastes resources because short prison stays do not last long enough for offenders to benefit from drug treatment and other rehabilitative programs. Moreover, when low-risk inmates and high-risk inmates are housed together, low-risk inmates are more likely to recidivate. This bill would allow IDOC to set conditions of parole and mandatory supervised release, including using home detention and electronic monitoring options for some offenders.

These are all good first steps, but much more will be needed to repair Illinois’ broken criminal-justice system. To reap the benefits of lower corrections costs, the state will also need to overhaul sentencing and focus on treatment instead of incarceration – both to improve public safety and to save limited criminal-justice resources.

For reform to truly be successful, lawmakers need to go beyond sentencing policy and reforming prisons. To achieve lasting savings and improve economic outcomes, lawmakers need to remove barriers to ex-offender employment that make earning a paycheck nearly impossible for people trying to turn around their lives and support themselves and their families.

One positive change would be to allow former nonviolent offenders to petition courts to make their criminal records viewable only by law enforcement or persons hiring for especially sensitive work. “Record sealing” gives these ex-offenders a better chance of finding stable employment. The Safer Foundation reported in 2008 that just 18 percent of its clients who found work ended up back behind bars within three years of release from prison. That’s a significant improvement on the overall recidivism rate: Nearly half of Illinois’ ex-offenders return to prison within three years of their release – often because it’s hard for them to find work.

Another important change would be to remove occupational licensing restrictions that keep former offenders out of work. On the state level, there are at least 118 professions for which government either must or may deny a license to anyone with a felony record. Anyone who aspires to be a barber, boxer, cosmetologist, funeral home director, accountant or roofer, to name just a few occupations, can be turned away by the government long after he or she has served time and paid his or her debt to society.

These limitations make little sense for a state seeking to reduce crime and welfare dependency. Those released from prison should be expected to support themselves and their families. But they can’t do this if government makes it even more difficult for them to find work.

The three reforms announced today are important first steps. But if Illinois is to reduce its prison population 25 percent by 2025, as the governor has advocated, the state will need to enact much bolder reforms on sentencing and re-entry policy.

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