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Illinois’ rendezvous with prison overcrowding

Updated: April 3, 2012 8:13AM

In his budget address last week, Gov. Pat Quinn said Illinois must have a “rendezvous with reality” and make difficult financial decisions. Among other things, the governor’s plan calls for closing eight correctional facilities, which he says will save the state almost $60 million. As Illinois annually spends more than $1.3 billion on prisons, Quinn is wise to look there to cut costs. However, he will need to do more than close facilities to achieve his savings.

With more than 48,000 inmates in a system designed for about 34,000, the Illinois Department of Corrections is dangerously overcrowded. The answer to this problem cannot simply be to consolidate more people into less space.

Rather, Quinn and the General Assembly must couple closures with criminal justice reform, aimed at reducing the state’s prison population. If they don’t, Illinois will find itself facing another rendezvous: the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, which is the standard that recently led the Supreme Court to order California to alleviate its overcrowded prisons by releasing more than 30,000 inmates.

While the Illinois prison system has been crowded for a long time, its population exploded in the last two years when a good-conduct credit program was suspended after it became ensnared in election-year politics. During this period, while states such as Texas, Mississippi and Ohio found safe and cost-effective ways to control crime and reduce their prison populations, Illinois led the country in increasing its prison population, adding almost 4,000 inmates.

While every Illinois prison struggles with overcrowding, medium and minimum-security facilities, which house approximately 80 percent of the state’s total prisoners, face the most severe overcrowding.

In recent visits to the Vandalia and Vienna correctional centers, for instance, the John Howard Association found inmates in conditions that rival California’s prisons. These facilities were so crowded that administrators had no choice but to house hundreds of minimum-security inmates in flooded basements and vermin-infested dormitories with broken windows, leaking pipes and dilapidated roofs.

These conditions should worry all Illinois citizens. They not only create a dangerous environment for inmates and staff, but also compromise public safety by making offenders worse and more likely to commit new crimes upon release.

In the past, Illinois’ answer to prison overcrowding was to open new facilities. Given our bleak finances, the state does not have the money to build its way out of this crisis. But even if we could afford to open facilities, we now know that incarceration is the most expensive and least rehabilitative form of punishment, particularly for the low-level offenders who have swelled Illinois’ prisons.

To address prison overcrowding, Quinn and the General Assembly should do three things:

† Quinn should either restore Meritorious Good Time, the program he suspended in 2010, or work with the General Assembly to create a new good-conduct program that enables low-level offenders to earn time off their sentences. This would give IDOC discretion to reward inmates for good behavior and safely decrease the prison population.

† Illinois’ elected officials need to divert more low-level offenders from prison. This would include expanding Adult Redeploy Illinois, in which the state funds counties to create diversion programs that have proven to be more effective at rehabilitation and less expensive than the state’s prison system.

† Quinn and the General Assembly should look to what states across the country are doing to reduce their prison populations, control crime and save taxpayer money.

The real challenge Illinois faces is not prison overcrowding. It is finding the will to implement solutions that work.

John Maki is executive director of the John Howard Association.

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