Guest commentary: Becoming smart on crime

Guest commentary: Becoming smart on crime

By Nazgol Ghandnoosh

Gov. Bruce Rauner has created a committee tasked with reducing Illinois' prison population by 25 percent in 10 years. Illinois prisons now hold almost 49,000 people, compared with about 11,000 in 1980.

Noting that the state's prison system has devolved into one of the most overcrowded in the country, grown ineffective at fighting crime and comes at a cost of $1.3 billion a year, Rauner intends to formulate smarter crime policies.

In recent years, 34 states have reduced their prison populations. Nine have achieved double-digit rates of decline, led by New York and New Jersey, which have downsized prisons by over 25 percent since 1999.

Illinois ranks 30th in prisoner reductions. After nearly four decades of growth, the state's prison population declined by 1.4 percent in 2013. While sharing in the national crime drop, Illinois has so far resisted the trend toward decarceration.

Rauner's proposal moves the state in the right direction because it will reduce the human toll of excessive punishment, save state funds and promote public safety.

Many political leaders and practitioners now recognize tough-on-crime policies as a failed over-reaction to a long-passed crime wave. Researchers have shown that crime rates did not swell prison populations — the real drivers were the war on drugs and harsher sentencing — and high levels of incarceration have contributed little to the crime decline. Some are now proposing bold steps to address excessive incarceration. Newt Gingrich, former GOP House speaker, advocates for cutting the prison population by 50 percent in 10 years.

Other states' experiences with decarceration should reassure Illinoisans that it is possible to substantially reduce prison populations without harming public safety. While scaling back use of prisons, New York and New Jersey's violent and property crime rates fell at greater rates than they did nationwide.

Reducing excessive levels of incarceration is not at odds with public safety for three reasons:

First, as Rauner has observed, "for lower-risk offenders, prison is an expensive way to make them into more serious criminals." Drug addictions go untreated in most prisons, incarceration strains people's ties to their communities, and criminal records taint future employment prospects.

Second, long prison sentences bring diminishing returns. People "age out of crime," meaning that those who break laws in their teens and 20s generally desist from crime after their 30s. Little is achieved by keeping someone in prison long past the likely end of their criminal career. And because few people expect to be caught for their crimes in the first place, long prison sentences do little to deter crime.

Finally, a bloated prison budget comes at the expense of investments proven to help prevent crime. The rush to punish over the past four decades has accompanied underinvestment in drug treatment and crime prevention programs.

Prison populations don't automatically shrink as crime rates fall: States that have downsized their prisons have done so by implementing changes in criminal justice policy and practice. These measures include drug sentencing reforms, diversion options for persons convicted of lower-level drug crimes, expanded community sentencing options and reduced readmissions to prison because of technical parole violations.

These reforms are within reach for Illinois. One in four people in the state's prisons are serving time for a drug offense, with a similar proportion convicted of a property crime. And 80 percent of those returned to prison for parole violations were found to have violated the technical terms of parole — for causes including missing a meeting with a parole officer — rather than for a new felony conviction.

California recently took a major step to shift the balance between prevention and punishment. Voter-approved Proposition 47 in 2014 reclassified a number of low-level offenses from felonies to misdemeanors and committed an estimated $150-$250 million of annual prison savings to prevent crime from happening in the first place. These efforts include mental health and drug abuse treatment programs, school truancy and dropout prevention, and expanded victim services.

Twenty-nine states are ahead of Illinois in downsizing prisons. A 25 percent reduction is a critical next step for the state to become smart on crime.

Nazgol Ghandnoosh is a research analyst at The Sentencing Project, a national nonprofit organization engaged in research and advocacy on criminal justice issues.