Prison Reform Group Gets Three-Month Reprieve

Dec 6, 2015

Rodger Heaton, right, chairs a meeting of the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform earlier this year in Springfield.
Credit Brian Mackey / WUIS/Illinois Issues

On episode 16 of the State of the State podcast, a commission working on an overhaul of Illinois’ criminal justice system has approved its first set of recommendations.

TRANSCRIPT: From NPR Illinois, this is State of the State. I'm Brian Mackey, and the state of the state today is trying to bring down the prison population. We're going to hear an update on the status of a push to change the criminal justice system in Illinois.

The aspects of Gov. Bruce Rauner's "Turnaround Agenda" that have gotten the most attention this year have to do with his push to undermine labor unions that represent people who work for the government. The unwilingness of Democrats in the legislature to consider those ideas has also meant little progress on the pro-corporate aspects of the governor's agenda.

But there is one part of the "Turnaround Agenda" that's making progress. Rauner mentioned it in his State of the State address this February.

RAUNER: "As we look further for government reform and to bring best management practices to our state, our criminal justice system is one area we must focus on."

By that time, Rauner had already launched a commission to find a way to safely reduce the prison population by 25 percent in 10 years.

RAUNER: "We have to both prevent crime from occurring and reform the parole system and re-entry process so that the same people are not returning to prison over and over."

Commissioners have gotten another three months to work on some of the thornier issues — but they do plan to release a report with some recommendations by the end of the year.

The commission was supposed to have a final report to the governor by the end of this year. That's not going to happen — commissioners have gotten another three months to work on some of the thornier issues — but they do plan to release a report with some recommendations by the end of the year.

The commission — formally, it's known as the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform — is a big group. It's comprised of legislators, judges, lawyers, prison officials, police, community activists and academics. They've been meeting all year, mostly to hear from people with a variety of perspectives on what's not working in the criminal justice system. But with the deadline for the final report drawing near, it was time to start taking votes on actual proposals.

So on a recent Friday morning, commissioners gathered in a conference room at Adler University, overlooking the loop in downtown Chicago. Chairman Rodger Heaton, a top law enforcement adviser to Rauner and former U.S. attorney, began the meeting.

HEATON: "We are going to have a pretty full agenda (PDF) here today to try to get through these 15 potential reforms, both in terms of discussion and voting on them, so we won't be taking many breaks. But if you need to get up and use the restroom or take a phone call — whatever you need to do — please do that."

What followed was an extraordinary sight: A room of some of the state’s top criminal justice officials and thinkers, going through recommendations, line by line, word by word. It was sausage-making of a kind the public rarely gets to see — these sorts of detailed negotiations are usually done behind closed doors.

One proposal would have the state provide support for local groups that work to address crime and incarceration policies. The wording of the proposal drew concerns from some of the Republican legislators on the commission, including Rep. John Cabello, who's from the Rockford area.

CABELLO: "I just don't see how we can tell them that they're going to have to do something and not provide them funds. They keep constantly coming to us say, 'Don't mandate, because you're not funding. And in fact you're cutting.' So it comes down to the dollars."

Cabello's comment drew a response from John Maki, a prison reform advocate who joined the Rauner administration to head the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.

MAKI: "This wouldn't be about imposing extra burdens on the state, it would just be simply coordinating the resources that are already going to the local jurisdictions. And again, the jurisdictions I've talked about — including Winnebago — (are) extremely interested in having more freedom from the state to use state resources that's directed at problems they identify, issues they see."

Ultimately, commissioners stuck with somewhat softer language, trying to avoid the hot-button language of "mandates."

Of course, supporting local crime-reduction efforts and modernizing data collection are relatively low-hanging fruit when it comes to problems in the criminal justice system. The commissioners also tried to tackle thornier issues, like trying to prevent the use of prison for convicts with really short sentences. Heaton explained that many felons spend so much time in county jail before trial that it's hardly worth the effort and expense of sending them to a state prison.

'The waitlist is such that they don't get anything from the Department of Corrections during that short stay, other than to be kept safe, fed and clothed.'

HEATON: "By the time someone goes through receiving and classification, is assigned to a parent facility, is transferred there, and then signs up for — or is routed toward — particular kinds of treatment or programming, the waitlist is such that they don't get anything from the Department of Corrections during that short stay, other than to be kept safe, fed and clothed."

Heaton continued by asking whether that does society or the inmate any good.

HEATON: "That has produced no real change in their life, and it certainly added cost to the criminal justice system. ... So we've talked about we should prevent the use of prison for those with such short lengths of stay. … In this instance the starting draft for discussion says less than nine months."

The official representing the Department of Corrections said her agency would welcome the change. And some commissioners pushed to make the cutoff 12 months instead of nine.

It's worth pausing here to remember the goal Gov. Rauner set for the commission: safely reduce the prison population by 25 percent over the next 10 years. When Rauner set that goal, Illinois had more than 48,700 inmates. Bringing that number down by more than 12,000 is going to take more than better data collection and supporting local criminal justice councils. That means it really matters where you set the trigger point for preventing the use of prison for short-timers — nine months or 12. Heaton told commissioners to figure about 700 inmates per month. Though a handful of the commissioners voted against it, they decided to go with a 12-month cutoff.

By the end of that Friday meeting in Chicago, commissioners had accepted more than a dozen proposals. But there is still more work to be done. Heaton says the commission has been given another 90 days to do more. Some of the issues that remain are whether to change Illinois’ truth-in-sentencing law — which says inmates convicted of certain offenses have to serve most of their sentence, no matter how well behaved they are or how much they improve themselves behind bars.

There was a taste of how difficult that discussion could go when commissioners debated whether to allow a sentence of probation for certain offenses that currently have mandatory prison sentences. That includes crimes like residential burglary, a second offense of driving on a suspended license, drug law violations and possession of a weapon by a felon.

That last point — the weapons crime — was divisive. Some commissioners successfully argued for excluding it as a way of recognizing the problem of gun violence in places like Chicago, Rockford and East St. Louis. That drew objections from others, like Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul, who's from Chicago. He said if an unelected commission can't confront questions like that, elected politicians won't be able to either.

'If we're acting as politicians in here, we're not doing what we're supposed to be doing as a commission.'

RAOUL: "And a lot of these things just won’t happen without in the absence of the endorsement of a group like this. … And all of these are recommendations, right? That doesn’t mean that the governor’s going to adopt them or the legislature’s going to adopt them. But the fact that we’re putting the force behind it, because we know it’s the right thing — if we don’t take that responsibility, then I just feel that if we’re acting as politicians in here, we’re not doing what we’re supposed to be doing as a commission."

An initial final report of the commission — is that a semi-final report? — anyway, a report is due by the end of the year, with more to come in 2016.

That's it for this edition of "State of the State." You can subscribe to the podcast at WUIS.org. Thanks for listening. I'm Brian Mackey.

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Music: "Holding Steady" and "Motivate" by Podington Bear. Used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-3.0 license, via WFMU's Free Music Archive.