Plugging away on prisons
State officials are taking a series of baby steps aimed at ensuring that only those people who need to be in prison are in prison.
Shortly after Gov. Bruce Rauner took office in January 2015, he made it clear that there are too many people in Illinois prisons.
The governor established a goal of reducing the state's prison population by 25 percent by 2025, and appointed a commission made up of legislators, law officers and representatives of the judicial system to study the issues and make recommendations for change.
Last week, Rauner signed another in a series of bills aimed at implementing the commission's recommendations.
This bill — SB 2872 — is aimed at helping to rehabilitate those already behinds bars by offering them expanded opportunities to participate in prison programs.
The most significant aspect of the legislation is that it expands the "good time" credit that inmates can receive on their sentences if they participate in programs aimed at helping them become successful after they are released.
Prison, too often, is a revolving door of inmates who are sentenced, serve their time and then are released and then resentenced to prison after they commit new crimes. This is a difficult cycle to break, particularly for those individuals who have come from impoverished backgrounds or have little education.
Further, offenders of a certain age are likely to continue to commit new crimes until they grow out of their criminal propensity.
This measure is aimed at assisting inmates who have participated in prison programming to the point that they are ineligible to earn additional good time off their sentences.
Not all inmates will be eligible — just those who are considered likely to benefit from additional opportunities.
The governor, as he has done on other issues, has embraced an aggressive approach on this issue.
He insists that too many people are in prison, and he may well be correct about that. But the difficulty for prosecutors and judges is determining which defendants need to be locked up to ensure public safety and which would be best served by a probation sentence that carries strict conditions.
The legislation also goes beyond criminal defendants to address the victims of criminal behavior.
The legislation requires the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, a research agency, to provide planning and technical assistance to high-crime communities in which those victimized by the criminal element experience trauma.
Identifying changes that result in fewer people in prison is particularly difficult. While there will always be a criminal element, the best means of ensuring law-abiding behavior is to maintain a strong, vibrant economy that produces jobs and proper education and training that allow individuals to exercise their potential and see meaningful opportunities of a better life.
Illinois is sadly lacking a jobs-generating economy and good training and educational opportunities for all. If legislators really want to do something to address prison issues, they might try cooperating on education and jobs issues like they did on this prison measure.