Commission's Recommendations Could Rewrite Illinois Sentencing Laws | WGLT

Commission's Recommendations Could Rewrite Illinois Sentencing Laws

Feb 21, 2017

Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet was built in 1925 to hold 1,500 inmates. Today, the average annual inmate population is greater than 3,500.
Credit Jim Larrison

To deal with severe over-crowding in Illinois prisons, a bi-partisan governor's commission has issued recommendations that, if adopted, would represent the most sweeping changes to criminal sentencing laws in decades.

The Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform has proposed reducing a number of sentences for several non-violent crimes, particularly drug offenses. The group also recommended increasing services to help ex-offenders successfully re-enter society, including help with employment, housing and transportation.

"The research shows that putting more people in prison and for longer periods of time does not deter crime, which was the hope for a lot of these sentences and laws in the 1990s, and in fact, putting certain kinds of folks in prison makes them more likely to commit further crimes," said Elizabeth Robb, former Chief Judge of the McLean County Circuit Court and a member of the governor's criminal justice commission.

The initiative begun by Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2015 is an effort to deal with severe over-crowding. Illinois prisons operate at 150 percent of capacity and the state spends $1,4 billion annually to run them, up from $52 million in 1970.

Speaking on GLT's Sound Ideas, Robb said the effort is aimed at reducing prison operating costs, and improving rehabilitative services for ex-offenders. 

The commission's recommendations will be discussed at a public forum sponsored by the McLean County League of Women Voters on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Normal Public Library.

The trend in the 1990s was to stiffen sentences for a variety of offenses, especially drug-related crimes, and require judges to impose mandatory sentences. This led to an explosion in the prison population. The commission's recommendations would reduce sentences for many of those offenses.

Robb noted that possession of a half ounce of cocaine, for example, is now classified as Class X offense, which carries a maximum sentence of 30 years, on a par with kidnapping and aggravated sexual assault. 

"A lot of these sentences for possessing drugs are more severe than for violent crimes, and that doesn't seem to be logical," Robb said.

The sweeping drug laws of the nineties resulted in the arrests of large numbers of minorities. African Americans, though 15 percent of Illinois' population, account for 57 percent of the prison population -- a trend mirrored nationally.

Hispanics in Illinois are incarcerated at almost twice the rate of whites. 

The commission also called for additional training for law enforcement officers to address racial and ethnic bias.

The proposed changes would affect sentences given to those convicted in the future, but current inmates could also see a reduction in the minimum amount of time they will have to serve.

"For example, [there is a recommendation that would allow] folks who are serving 75 percent or 85 of their sentence to receive some good time credit and educational credit, so their sentences would be reduced by that," Robb said.

Instead of relying so heavily on incarceration, courts should use a mix of electronic monitoring, home confinement, community supervision and other "rehabilitative measures," the commission said.

"Folks who are released from prison for the most part are going to be on a mandatory supervised release period," Robb said. "The Department of Corrections has really been making great strides in assessing people for the risks they pose and assessing them for what they need in terms of changing their behavior."

Currently about half the people who serve time are re-arrested and return to prison within three years.

"Part of the reason is because right now, while they are incarcerated, there is very little in terms of services being provided to them to change their behavior because the prisons are so over-crowded and because of the budgetary situation. They are being warehoused and they are not receiving opportunities to learn and acquire skills so they can get a job to support themselves and their families," Robb said. 

The commission recommended targeting zip codes where large numbers of ex-offenders live with increased services. Among the main impediments to successful rehabilitation, Robb said, is that ex-offenders are barred from working at certain types of jobs currently, and are often denied housing, including public housing benefits.

The commission proposed lifting restrictions that prevent ex-offenders from working at dozens of jobs that require licenses, for instance, cosmetician or barber.

"There is like 125  licenses that we recommended  a task force be created to determine what's the reason for this. Hair-braiding -- you can't have a license to do hair-braiding if you have a criminal conviction.  I don't understand why," Robb said. 

Retired McLean County Circuit Court Chief Judge Elizabeth Robb served on the governor's commision to reduce the prison population.
Credit Coutesty of Illinois Wesleyan University

One recommendation that may provoke controversy addresses the sale of drugs near schools, churches, public housing and day care centers.

There are stiffer sentences for selling drugs within 500 feet of these facilities. The commission recommended changing that distance to 1,000 feet.

"The state's attorney needs to show what the nexus is. If drugs are being sold at two o'clock in the morning, and there are no children in the area, then why should that be an enhanced crime?" Robb said. 

"If it is two in the afternoon and they are recruiting kids to sell drugs, that's the nexus that could allow for an enhancement on this sentence," she added. 

Robb said these enhanced drug sentences "disproportionately disadvantage" minorities living in urban areas "because there are so many storefront churches and day care centers in a dense urban area, and so you cannot go to many areas in a city and not be within 1,000 feet of one of those places."

In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, legislatures began requiring judges to impose mandatory minimum sentences. The commission's recommendations would give judges greater discretion in sentencing. Robb, who retired in 2015  from the 11th Judicial Circuit, said she supports that change. 

"We believe judges are in a much better position than a legislature is to craft an appropriate sentence," she said. Judges, she added, have access to a wide range of information on individual defendants that might point to mitigating circumstances in some cases. 

Despite a  law and order fervor sweeping some parts of the country currently, Robb said the proposed changes have received broad bi-partisan support. 

"Whether you are on the right or the left, if you find out a long prison sentence is not being effective as a deterrent, you might be interested in finding out what is an effective deterrent," she said. "We think most folks would like to have people released back into the community who have a much more likely opportunity to be law-abiding and productive."

The goal given to the commission was to seek ways to reduce the state prison population by 24 percent by 2025.