Nationwide prison populations have been declining for two years, but Illinois the prison population has soared instead.

A report by Malcolm Young, director of prison reentry strategies at a Northwestern University law school legal clinic, says the increase here was sparked by inaccurate news reports and political opportunism.

While prison populations declined 1.3 percent in 2010, according to federal statistics, Illinois saw a 7.2 percent increase.

Young says some states facing budget problems — like Michigan, New Jersey and New York — have distinguished themselves by consistently decreasing their prisoner populations over the last decade.

In Illinois, a bipartisan majority of state lawmakers agreed to a policy of further restraining the state’s use of prisons in 2009.

But what Young calls inaccurate news reports and political opportunism by members of both parties pushed Gov. Pat Quinn to suspend Meritorious Good Time, a 30-year-old good conduct program through which about 24,000 prisoners were released on average 135 days before the end of their terms.

“Suspending MGT drove up the prison population,” Young said, “causing the kind of severe overcrowding or ‘warehousing’ that occurred in California prisons in the run-up to last May’s U.S. Supreme Court case that ordered a population reduction.”

“According to conventional wisdom, depressed state economies would compel states to take the steps necessary to reduce prison incarceration, and the public would support reductions in prison populations in favor of lower public expenditures and reduced taxes,” Young said.

“What actually happened suggests a disconnect rather than a causal connection between policymaker’s fiscal concerns and their willingness to take effective steps to reduce incarceration.”

Across the country about 7.1 million people, or one in 33 adults, are currently under the supervision of adult correctional authorities.

The full report is available online.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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1 Comment

  1. Legalize marijuana to cut prison population

    Time to legalize marijuana. 

    While most states are currently reducing their prison populations, Illinois has added more than 4,000 inmates to its prisons, bringing its total population to almost 49,000. (See Figure 1)

    While this recent growth stems from the suspension of some early release programs, the problem of prison overcrowding is rooted in decades of tough on crime legislation, the war on drugs, and harsh sentencing practices.

    These policies have not only led to record numbers of people being locked up. They have also drained Illinois of vital resources, while having only a minimal effect on the crime rate.

    In 2009, taxpayers spent more than $1 billion on state prisons, with an average cost of almost $25,000 an inmate.

    It would be some comfort if this money increased public safety, but that’s not the case. Almost 70 percent of all Illinois inmates are in prison for non-violent crimes and about 50 percent of all offenders serve six months or less.

    Research shows that when low-level non-violent offenders are incarcerated instead of given supervised release, they are more likely to commit new crimes once they are released from prison.

    Recently IDOC has taken important steps to reduce costs and protect the public. For instance, as part of the Crime Reduction Act of 2009, IDOC is working with counties to divert non-violent offenders to community-based programs, which are both less expensive and more effective at rehabilitating these kinds of offenders than the state prison system.

    However, when it comes to controlling costs, IDOC can only do so much. If Illinois is serious about reducing the amount of taxpayer dollars it spends on prisons, then politicians, policy makers, and the public must commit themselves to reforming the criminal justice system, from arrest to release. Otherwise, we can only expect to spend even more money on an expensive prison system."

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