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Many candidates for higher office say they support criminal justice reform, but what does that actually mean? Passing reforms that help real people will take grit, determination, and knowing how the system works. That’s why serious candidates for criminal justice reform should support the following:
Mandatory minimums dictate the shortest sentence judges are allowed to dispense for a certain offense. Firearm enhancements require increased sentence lengths for firearm use. But research shows these policies lead to little to no reduction in crime while the longer sentences they produce contribute heavily to overcrowded prisons.
In Illinois, laws limit the range of sentences that judges are allowed to dispense people convicted of certain crimes. High minimums limit discretion to consider mitigating factors, such as youth or family background. When a person in Illinois commits certain felonies with a firearm, prosecutors may charge them for that firearm use. If convicted, judges are required to add 15 to 25 years to the convicted person’s sentence.
Across the country, states are turning away from mandatory minimums and firearm enhancements. Just this year, California passed a bill that gives judges discretion to apply the firearm enhancement, rather than making it an automatic addition. And since 2000, at least seventeen states from across the political spectrum have rolled back mandatory minimums.
In 1978, Illinois abolished parole. In 1998, it passed truth in sentencing laws that restricted the ability of many prisoners to earn time off their sentences. These policies have contributed to longer and longer prison stays, while showing little to no evidence that the longer sentences they produce lead to safer streets and neighborhoods.
In contrast, when done right, parole and other programs for early release both save money and reduce future crime more than incarceration.
Parole costs the taxpayer 10 times less than putting a person behind bars for the same amount of time, before taking into account the roughly $34,000 in annual wages individuals can’t earn while incarcerated. In terms of public safety, studies also show that individuals released on discretionary parole are up to 16% less likely to be rearrested than those released through non-discretionary programs.
Longer sentences don’t make the public any safer and for lower-risk offenders can actually backfire, by separating people from their community and families and increasing the likelihood of future offense. That’s why bringing back parole and rolling back truth-in-sentencing is a smart step for tackling crime and mass incarceration in Illinois.
No child should be sentenced to die in prison. But today, Illinois continues to allow children to be sentenced to life without parole, a judgment designating them as forever beyond redemption.
This backward policy goes against the trajectory of the Supreme Court and nation. Today, more and more states across the United States have recognized the fundamental injustice of sentencing a child to die in prison.
Children are fundamentally different from adults and deserve to be treated as such. This has been the stance of the U.S. Supreme Court across multiple rulings, including Roper v. Simmons, the 2005 case that deemed unconstitutional the sentencing of children to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
As of this year, twenty states have already abolished sentencing children to life without parole, fifteen in the last five years alone. Nationwide, the movement is supported by a vast and bipartisan slate of organizations, while all three of American Bar Association, American Probation and Parole Association, and the American Correctional Association have taken policy resolutions against the practice.
Prisons are tools of reform, not vengeance. Because most people who enter prison will one day be released, society is best served when time behind bars prepares these individuals to live responsibly once returned.
Some believe harsh and degrading prison conditions help curb criminal behavior through deterrence and subjugation. But research shows that these harsh conditions don’t reduce recidivism, and can actually have the opposite effect.
In just the last five years, the Illinois Department of Corrections has been sued across multiple class action suits, on issues ranging from inadequate medical care to physical and sexual abuse at the hands of militarized tactical squads. These suits point to the degrading and potentially criminal conditions in correctional facilities, that may end up costing taxpayers millions in payouts and settlements.
So what should we do instead? Investing in prison programming shown to reduce recidivism is one way to make prisons a pathway to rehabilitation, rather than an anchor that drags and keeps people down. Supporting programs that divert at-risk youth from criminal activity before they ever enter is another. Whatever path is chosen, one thing is certain: the human, social, and economic costs of our current prison state are now intolerable, and change can’t wait any longer.
For decades, Illinois has pursued a legislative campaign aimed at curbing crime. And while some of the policies this tough-on-crime era produced have had modest impacts on crime rate, they came at the cost of making Illinois’ prison system the most overcrowded in the nation.
These laws need reform, and in some cases repeal. And to really impact prison crowding, these reforms must apply retroactively. Otherwise, Illinois will bear the legacy of misguided policies for decades to come, and produce flawed and fragmented prison system where when people enters matter more than their choices or actions.