With falling or
stabilizing crime rates, declining prison populations, and mounting
public support for alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent
offenders, Illinois should follow the lead of some conservative,
budget-strapped states that are finding ways to cut corrections
while protecting public safety.
prison populations involves not only reducing the number of people
incarcerated, but also implementing sound public policy that treats
offenders and reduces rearrest rates. The state must avoid the
mistake of releasing inmates to the community without access to
appropriate reintegration services. Instead, we should follow the
model of states that are developing comprehensive policies to save
money and protect public safety by placing nonviolent offenders in
alternative treatment programs. The state should also beef up
community-based mental health services and stop using prisons and
jails as holding cells for the mentally ill.
State, local and
federal governments spend over $40 billion annually imprisoning
nearly two million Americans. Because one out of every 14 general
fund dollars is spent on prisons and because prisons are one of the
fastest growing line items in state budgets, officials can save
substantially by cutting corrections instead of slashing school
budgets or eliminating health care coverage for the working poor.
Nationally, about $24
billion will be spent this year just to lock up 1.2 million
nonviolent offenders. These are precisely the kinds of inmates the
public believes should be held accountable in ways other than
prison. According to a poll released in February by Hart Research
Associates, three-quarters of Americans support sentencing
nonviolent offenders to probation instead of imprisonment, and a
substantial majority of the public supports eliminating mandatory
sentencing laws and returning sentencing discretion to judges.
Similarly, separate polls by Parade Magazine and ABC News, released
in February and March respectively, found that three-quarters of
Americans favored sentencing nonviolent offenders to alternatives to
incarceration like probation and drug treatment rather than prison.
In separate polls in California and Pennsylvania, when asked where
spending cuts should be made, respondents answered that prison
budgets should be trimmed first.
[to top of second column in
As public opinion has
shifted in favor of sensible alternatives to incarceration and state
budgets have tightened, conservative states like Texas, Ohio and
Michigan have rethought their prison policies. Texas, the state with
the largest prison population, reduced its prison population by
8,000 after implementing alternative sanctions for parole violators
instead of automatically returning them to prison for technical
violations. In June, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas signed legislation
diverting thousands of nonviolent offenders from prison into
treatment. Before leaving office at the end of 2002, Michigan's
governor, John Engler, approved legislation that repealed most of
the state's mandatory minimum drug statutes. And Ohio's sentencing
guidelines and parole reforms have combined to reduce the state's
prison population by more than 3,400 since 1998, funding an increase
in supervision and treatment programs to absorb nonviolent offenders
who would otherwise be incarcerated.
Illinois has taken some important steps in the right direction when
it comes to cutting corrections costs. The state is investing in
treatment programs through the governor's promise to reopen the
Sheridan Correctional Center as a drug treatment facility and to
keep newly constructed, expensive prisons closed. The Illinois
Legislature recently passed the "Redeploy Illinois" bill, which
provides local communities a financial incentive to develop local
continuums of care rather than relying on incarceration.
But Illinois can save
even more money by instituting some sound criminal justice policies.
Excessive prison spending can easily be reduced through viable,
cost-effective alternatives to imprisoning nonviolent offenders,
including community-based corrections facilities, halfway houses,
intensive probation, day reporting and electronic monitoring. The
state could also save money by providing compassionate leave for
elderly and chronically ill inmates, a low-risk population. Finally,
if Illinois embraces creative justice models for the adult and
juvenile justice systems, many more individuals will be spared the
retributive practices of the traditional justice system for more
"restorative" practices that hold offenders accountable, while
attending to victims' needs and preserving public safety.
Providing alternatives to incarceration
could alleviate the current fiscal crisis and safely reduce the
prison population, making it a feasible solution for Illinois.
Coldren and Vincent Schiraldi]
Coldren is the
president of the John Howard Association for prison reform in
Illinois and Schiraldi is president of the Justice Policy Institute
in Washington, D.C.
Copyright 2003 by the Illinois Editorial
Forum, an educational organization that provides the media with the
views of state experts on major public issues. Letters should be
sent to Illinois Editorial Forum, P.O. Box 82, Springfield, IL