Prison reform was among the hot button issues the General Assembly had to tackle during the spring session. The budget Gov. Pat Quinn gave legislators earlier this year to consider included steep cuts to the state’s prison system.
Quinn proposed closing the Tamms supermax prison located near the state’s southern border with Missouri and the Mississippi River, the women’s prison in Dwight, five adult transition centers and two juvenile facilities.
State prison population counts reveal a collective system that is nearly 1.5 times over capacity. Under Quinn’s plan, nearly 3,000 prisoners would be impacted. But a chorus of elected officials and non-profit organizations called for a focus on low-level inmates and facilities first to deal with the state’s prison expenses.
One watchdog and advocacy agency in particular had its eye on Senate Bill 2621 which established an early release program for some non-violent criminals who can get their get-out-of-jail card punched if they participate in certain good behavior, education and community service programs.
The John Howard Association (JHA) was a proponent of SB 2621 and is pleased with its passage during the spring session. The bill passed 55-1 in the Senate and 68-50 in the House and now awaits Gov. Pat Quinn’s signature to become law.
The JHA works to achieve a fair, humane and cost-effective criminal justice system by promoting adult and juvenile prison reform, leading to successful re-integration and enhanced community safety, according o it website,
According to the JHA, Illinois housed an estimated 50,000 inmates in a system equipped to hold roughly 34,000. Further, in 2009 Illinois spent $1 billion on prisons.
In addition to SB 2621 and the governor’s proposed closures, state Rep. Ken Dunkin (5th Dist.), wants the state to create penalty tiers for non-violent offenses in an effort to further cut the amount money the state spends on incarceration.
“When you take a look at Illinois’ prison population, most of them are there for non-violent crimes,” said Dunkin. “The United States and Illinois incarcerates too many people and the fiscal pressures, as well as the societal damage these policies create are unsustainable.
Dunkin used JHA data to press his point.
According to the organization, approximately 70 percent of inmates are imprisoned for non-violent offenses and 50 percent serve six months or less. Additionally, the state spends on average $25,000 per year per inmate.
“Let me be clear, this effort is about saving money and trying to break the cycle of recidivism that turns non-violent people who made a mistake into bitter career criminals,” said Dunkin. “I despise violent criminals who ruin communities and believe they deserve tough prison sentences. But I do see a great opportunity to find a smarter and cheaper way to spend that $25,000 on non-violent offenders.”
By Rhonda Gillespie