The Cost of Justice


When Mark Steiner of Decatur was released from prison last spring, he faced daunting decisions.

“You’re scared,” Steiner remembered. “You don’t know what’s going to happen or if you’re going to find a job or what’s going on.”

Steiner, who had served nearly three years, found help through Homeward Bound, a program that helped him find housing and prepare for a job search.

“They do try to help you get a job and everything,” Steiner said. “They help you get your driver’s license, social security card.”

Steiner’s situation is not uncommon. In recent years, Illinois’ prison population has soared from less than 10,000 inmates in the late 1960s and early 1970s to nearly 50,000 in recent years, a change mirrored across the country.

“The prison boom really began in the 1970s with a political mindset shift of punishment and incarceration,” explained UIS Criminology Chair Jay Gilliam.
“If you were to attribute it to one factor, I think the biggest factor would be the attention we gave drugs in society.”

Incarceration can be expensive; Illinois leaders estimate housing an inmate costs $22,000 to house an inmate each year ($37,000 once capital costs, employee benefits and pensions are included).  Research indicates incarceration can have a human cost too, making some people more likely to commit new crimes after prison.

In 2015, Governor Bruce Rauner launched a commission to reform the state’s criminal justice and sentencing system, with the goal of safely reducing the state’s prison population 25 percent by 2025. In January, the commission released its final report, outlining 27 proposals. They are:

  • Add rehabilitation and workforce development services and relax state housing restrictions that prohibit renting to people with criminal records.
  • Push the use of risk assessment tools in courts to decide which cases call for incarceration and for how long.
  • Encourage the development of local Criminal Justice Coordinating Councils to address crime in specific regions.
  • Use a Gender-Responsive approach for female offenders.
  • Require training on racial and ethnic bias for people working in the criminal justice system.
  • Improve data collection.
  • Collect and report data on race and ethnicity at all points in the criminal justice system.
  • Require state agencies to evaluate the criminal justice programs they fund and cut programs that don’t work.
  • Prevent use of prison for felons with short stays.
  • Raise the threshold dollar amounts for some thefts.
  • Give judges discretion to use probation for residential burglary, class 2 felonies and drug offenses.
  • Require judges to explain prison sentences for offenders with no prior probation sentences or no history of violent crime.
  • Reduce minimum sentences for all but the lowest-level felonies.
  • Limit automatic sentence enhancements.
  • Reduce sentence classifications for drug crimes.
  • Change mandatory felony classifications for drug crimes committed near protected areas like parks and schools.
  • Reduce classification for possessing a stolen vehicle.
  • Allow all inmates to earn programming credits.
  • Let inmates who are required to serve 75+ percent of their sentence to earn programming credit and good conduct credit.
  • Make better use of adult transition centers.
  • Improve and expand electronic monitoring.
  • Develop protocol to move terminally ill or incapacitated inmates out of prison.
  • Enhance rehabilitative programming in the Illinois Department of Corrections.
  • Limit maximum term of mandatory supervised release.
  • Restore the Halfway Back program for violations of mandatory supervised release.
  • Require DOC and the Secretary of State to ensure inmates have a state ID card when released.

To view the full report, click here.

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