Overcrowded Prisons and Overdue Criminal Justice Reform

Congress missed an opportunity to follow public sentiment

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, center, signs the occupational licensing bill in August, as Lisa Creason, fourth from left, an advocate for the legislation, looks on. (Courtesy Illinois Government News Network)
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, center, signs the occupational licensing bill in August, as Lisa Creason, fourth from left, an advocate for the legislation, looks on. (Courtesy Illinois Government News Network)
Posted October 21, 2016 at 5:00am

A criminal justice overhaul was on everyone’s radar for congressional action this fall but, like many priorities, it appears to have fallen by the wayside. The argument for commonsense reform, however, continues to grow stronger — and the repercussions of inaction are evident on the federal and state levels.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ most recent numbers show 19 prison systems, including the Federal Bureau of Prisons, exceeding maximum capacities for inmates. In recent years, my home state of Illinois has been the biggest offender with prisons at almost 150 percent of maximum capacity. Ohio is the second highest with its prisons operating at 131.9 percent of capacity.

The Illinois Policy Institute has highlighted that our state has one of the most overcrowded prisons in the country. But studies have shown that states can lower incarceration rates while lowering crime rates. In fact, 30 states have incarceration rates that are dropping while their crime rates continue to go down as well.

Public polling shows this is a winning issue politically on both sides of the aisle. Polling commissioned by Illinois Policy Action revealed that 92 percent of Democrats, 75 percent of Republicans and 82 percent of independents in Illinois are supportive of the state reducing the number of nonviolent offenders in our prisons. A similarly uniform group told us that leaders can be “tough on crime” and still work toward building better diversion and treatment programs.

Simply put, everyone understands the need to use criminal justice resources sensibly and the need to give second chances. Employment is necessary to keep many people on track and out of trouble. Without economic opportunity, recidivism will remain stubbornly high.

Illinois has made some modest progress by passing occupational licensing changes. Lisa Creason, an ex-felon who was denied a nursing license due to an attempted robbery conviction 20 years ago, is the reason the reform took place, and we helped tell her story. She turned her life around after getting out jail — she went back to school, got a nursing degree and was looking to give her children a better life. She refused to take “no” for an answer, and in August, Illinois’ Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the occupational licensing measure into law with Creason standing by his side. Another new law limits license denials for people with records who want to work as barbers, cosmetologists and other professionals. Even modest changes like this can have great importance.

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Other commonsense measures have passed since Rauner announced his goal to reduce the prison population by 25 percent by 2025. In the last two years, besides removing occupational licensing barriers, the legislature passed a bill creating civil penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana, removed expungement fees in our largest county and restricted juvenile transfer to adult prisons. More significant sentencing reforms are expected next year.

But there’s also much more that needs to be done at the state and federal level. Who does not believe in the power of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps?

Nationally, rather than stand in the way of reform, lawmakers should embrace measures that let people pursue a better life and a second chance. Currently, low-cost government Stafford education loans are blocked to people who have a criminal record. The same is true for Pell Grants. Vocational and other job training becomes much harder to acquire if you simply can’t pay for it. At its most base level, it’s clearly cheaper to invest in education and job training rather than sending them back to prison.

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National reform should also re-emphasize the importance of mental health and substance abuse programs to ensure we’re not repeatedly imprisoning people who need supportive or corrective help. After individuals serve their time, they should receive stronger assistance to assimilate into nonincarcerated life. Individualized re-entry plans can help by providing a road map for people whose errant paths took them to prison in the first place and often will take them back, if they’re not redirected. These are not expensive endeavors when compared to the fiscal and social costs of recidivism and victimization.

Congress has missed an opportunity this fall to follow their constituents’ sentiments for criminal justice reform. Voters clearly see its importance. But it’s not too late to change course for next year.

Jackson-Green is a criminal justice policy analyst for the Illinois Policy Institute.