For criminal justice advocates, recent headlines have provided encouragement: while the number of people incarcerated in Illinois prisons peaked in 2013 at nearly 50,000, the population has been on a steady decline since then and recently fell below 40,000—a 20% reduction.
While we should celebrate these declining rates, now is no time to become complacent. Illinois’ prison system still remains among the most overcrowded in the entire country and ranks among the worst when it comes to racial disparities in incarceration rates between black and white residents. And we still waste millions of dollars each year by relying upon our criminal justice system to respond to issues of addiction, mental illness, and poverty.
So what can we do to continue reducing the prison population in our state? While there is no single answer to that question, one factor has driven the numbers down more than any other: fewer felony arrests for drug and property crimes, particularly within Cook County.
Drug arrests in Chicago are down 80% over the past 10 years with three police districts accounting for much of that decline. According to Loyola University criminology professor David Olson, the decline in drug arrests has “really been concentrated in specific neighborhoods, just like the tripling and quadrupling of arrests in Chicago in the late ‘80s tended to be concentrated in very specific neighborhoods.”
At the same time, the number of people in state prisons for property crimes like shoplifting has plunged, due in large part to the proactive policies of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. In 2016, Foxx announced that her office would no longer prosecute retail theft as a felony unless the value of the stolen goods exceeds $1,000. That policy is more consistent with the rest of the country than Illinois state law’s $300 threshold for felony prosecution, which is one of the nation’s lowest. The shift in policy has allowed the State’s Attorney’s office to focus more of its resources to target the drivers of violence, which has also been declining in Cook County since 2016.
Meanwhile, Cook County has dramatically reduced the number of people detained pretrial in its jailby successfully implementing reforms to its bond court practices ordered by Chief Judge Timothy Evans of the Cook County Circuit Court and championed by County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. The new policy has helped Cook County reduce its jail population from more than 10,000 detainees in 2014 to fewer than 6,000 today, with less reliance on money bond.
President Preckwinkle has also shown a willingness to lead on criminal justice reform beyond the borders of Cook County. In recent years she has helped lead successful statewide efforts to keep children out of the adult criminal court system, and to expunge juvenile records that can follow people into adulthood, creating barriers to work, education, and housing.
While Illinois has made progress, we cannot assume that the current downward trend in incarceration will continue forever. If we fail to enact new statewide sentencing policies and arrest rates should begin rising again, then we could easily see all our recent progress evaporate.
Under the Rauner Administration, a bipartisan commission of experts from around the state issued a report recommending 27 specific reforms to Illinois’ criminal justice system. But Governor Rauner proved unwilling to move this bold package of reforms through the General Assembly and the vast majority of the commission’s recommended sentencing reforms were never implemented through legislation.
It’s time to revisit those recommendations - and now we have the opportunity with newly -elected leaders chosen by the voters to bring meaningful change to Illinois.
Governor JB Pritzker was elected on a platform of criminal justice reform, pledging to “end mass incarceration and get our communities the support they need to thrive.” Governor Pritzker has opined that “it’s time to modernize sentencing” and declared his support for “a holistic approach that addresses opportunity both inside and outside of our prisons.”
And earlier this year, Lori Lightfoot was elected mayor of Chicago, pledging to pursue meaningful criminal justice reform, saying, “as mayor, I will work with local, state and federal leaders, policing and criminal justice experts to identify ways to further reform the criminal justice system.”
In order to seize this moment for positive action, our elected officials must do the hard work and take the opportunity while it is there.
This means we will need to work together to treat substance use disorder and mental illness as the public health problems they are. We will need to cut back on the over-prosecution and harsh sentencing for petty theft. And we will need to continue to chip away at the harmful use of money bond that decimates poor communities throughout our state.
Governor Pritzker, President Preckwinkle, and Mayor Lightfoot can all make good on their respective commitments to real criminal justice reform by coming together, along with other leaders from around the state, to forge consensus on a truly comprehensive package of sentencing reforms and working collaboratively to pass it into law.