By Bryant Jackson-Green
A vast majority of Illinois voters support criminal-justice reform, according to a new poll conducted by the U.S. Justice Action Network.
According to the poll, “92 percent of Illinois voters – including 92 percent of Democrats, 96 percent of Republicans and 93 percent of Independents – favor reducing prison time for individuals convicted of low-risk, non-violent offenses in Illinois prisons.” As an alternative, survey results show Illinois voters support using the savings from reduced incarceration to create a stronger probation and parole system.
Some other key highlights from the poll show opposition to mandatory minimum sentencing and support for removing barriers to work and employment for ex-offenders:
- Support for replacing mandatory minimums: 87 percent of Illinois voters – including 89 percent of Democrats, 91 percent of Republicans and 86 percent of independents – would support replacing mandatory minimum sentences with sentencing ranges so judges can weigh the individual circumstances of each case, such as the seriousness of the offense and the offender’s criminal history, when determining the penalty.
- Approval of reforms that put ex-offenders back to work: 90 percent of Illinois voters – including 92 percent of Democrats, 90 percent of Republicans and 92 percent of independents – agree we should break down barriers for ex-offenders so they can get jobs, support their families, and stop being dependent on government services that cost Illinois taxpayers money.
The poll results echo a similar survey released by the American Civil Liberties Union in February. That survey also showed large bipartisan support for an overhaul of Illinois’ criminal-justice system.
Illinois is a state especially ripe for reform. Illinois has one of the most overcrowded prison systems in the country. In fiscal year 2015, the state spent $1.4 billion on its corrections program, an increase of more than $184 million from 2007. All of this spending is not achieving true rehabilitation, however. Nearly half of ex-offenders released from the Illinois Department of Corrections end up returning within three years.
But with policy and legislative changes, Illinois can lower its crime rate, reduce its incarceration rate and spend more prudently on criminal justice while maintaining public safety. The key is focusing on rehabilitation, recovery and employment – not just on punishment and warehousing people behind bars. Illinois must focus on reforms that:
- Ensure each sentence fits a person’s crime
- Relieve budgets by using cost-effective alternatives to incarceration where possible
- Remove barriers that keep former offenders out of legal work. Studies show that recidivism – the rate at which former offenders return to crime – can drop substantially when former offenders find work.
Voters are saying they want a cost-effective and financially stable criminal-justice system. Illinois lawmakers need to listen.