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Criminal Justice System Making Progress, But There's More Work To Do

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin talks about local criminal justice reforms during an event with state and federal lawmakers at Bradley University.
Dana Vollmer
U.S. Senator Dick Durbin talks about local criminal justice reforms during an event with state and federal lawmakers at Bradley University.

State and federal lawmakers are celebrating the relative success of recent criminal justice reforms. But they admit there’s still a long way to go.

Senator Dick Durbin said the worst vote he’s ever cast was on legislation cracking down on drug offenses — which only served to drive down illicit drug prices, increase the number of people suffering from addiction and swell prison populations.

But Durbin said attitudes have shifted when it comes to the opioid epidemic.

“There is no town too small. There is no suburb too wealthy,” Durbin said. “It affects white kids as much as black kids and brown kids. And now, as a result, we’re having a different conversation in America about drug addiction. It’s no longer ‘just get tough, just say no.’”

Late last year, the First Step Act became law. The measure set out to reduce mandatory minimum sentences, eliminate the so-called three strike rule and allow for early release of non-violent offenders. It’s targeted primarily at drug-related offenses.

More than 4,200 people have been released from prison or received a reduced sentence as a result.

But the measure only applies to federal prisoners, which make up just 10 percent of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States.

Durbin said the other 90 percent are better addressed at the state and local level.

Those efforts have also been largely successful, according to Peoria County Sheriff Brian Asbell.

Asbell works to address what he calls the three main causes of crime: treatable mental illness, poverty and substance abuse.

In 2010, Asbell said, the average daily population of the Peoria County Jail was about 500 people — or 600 in the summertime. The facility is designed to hold 380.

By changing their approach, Asbell said, his department has lowered the average population to 300 a day for the last three years.

“We’re challenging the power dynamics,” he said. “It’s all about power and it’s a system that — I won’t even say it’s broken, because I think the system by design since the beginning of our nation was set up this way. Culture will not be changed by legislation or litigation. It’s boots on the ground doing it every day.”

Lawmakers said while criminal justice reform is often a bipartisan issue, it can still be difficult to strike a balance between ensuring public safety and providing chances for rehabilitation.

Durbin and Asbell made their comments during an event hosted by the Dirksen Congressional Center in partnership with Bradley University’s Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service and Center for Legal Studies.

Copyright 2021 WCBU. To see more, visit WCBU.

Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.