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Commission Weighing 'Aggressive' Steps To Cut Prison Population

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In January, the Illinois prison population was down by more than 2,500 inmates over a year earlier. But that’s still a long way off from Gov. Bruce Rauner’s goal of cutting the population by 12,000 prisoners over the next decade.

The commission he appointed to make that happen is still figuring out how to meet his goal, and met Monday in Chicago to continue deliberations.

  The commission already issued one round of recommendations earlier this year. Many were relatively non-controversial, like expanding data sharing between state and local government and requiring state agencies to evaluate the effectiveness of criminal justice programs. The first set of recommendations also called for giving judges more discretion to sentence people to probation, and for keeping offenders with short sentences out of state prisons.

That initial set of recommendations, if passed by the legislature and implemented by the governor, would reduce Illinois’ prison population by anywhere from 4,000 to 6,000 inmates.

Some commissioners called that low-hanging fruit; now they’re having to scramble higher and higher up the tree.

On Monday, commissioners met at Adler University in downtown Chicago, in a 15th floor conference room overlooking the Loop.

One of the ideas up for discussion was changing Illinois' so-called Truth-in-Sentencing law, which prevents inmates locked up for certain crimes, like murder, from getting "good time" credit off their sentences.

They also debated reducing the sentencing ranges for felonies, and putting a limit on the sentence extensions people can get for things like using a gun to commit a crime.

These ideas could make a real difference in the population. Eliminating Truth in Sentencing, for example, which effectively doubled every murder sentence imposed after the 1990s, would cut the population by an estimated 3,200 people over the next nine years.

But some commissioners, like state Rep. Elgie Sims, a Democrat from Chicago, says he could already hear the voices of victims' advocates in his ears.

"They have rights, and what's appropriate — we want to make sure that the changes that we make, we don't want the victims' — their feelings about the system to be undermined," he says.

Sims acknowledges this is a unique opportunity for overhauling the criminal justice system. It's something long favored by many liberal Democrats, particularly those from Chicago, and it now has the full support of a conservative Republican governor.

But Sims says that won't necessarily make it easy, and he thinks the commission ought to be "pragmatic" in its recommendations.

"The process is also going to be one that it's political in nature," Sims says. "And the policy has to be sound policy for it to be good politics. And that's the reminder I want to give to everybody."

Other commissioners, like former trial judge Elizabeth Robb, acknowledge that whatever they recommend has to be "palatable" to the legislature.

'I think we're recognizing it's a really difficult target to hit.'

"But our charge was 25 percent by 2025, and that's a pretty aggressive number. And we're the commission and we're supposed to be thinking the big ideas," she says.

Asked whether she thought some of the debate at the meeting made it more or less likely the commissioners would meet the governor's 25 percent target: "I think we're recognizing it's a really difficult target to hit."

Members of the commission say that despite the difficulty of reaching agreement on some of the more contentious ideas for reducing prison sentences, they're still making progress.

"The fact that there's a lot of different opinions I think is a credit to the number of people who were selected to be on the commission and their backgrounds," says Jerry Butler, who works in community corrections with the Safer Foundation. "We're not all looking at everything the same way, so I think that's a good thing."

Despite some of the more stark differences among commissioners — between community activists on one side and prosecutors on the other — how radical the proposals are all depends on one's frame of reference.

John Maki, who's head of the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, says the most aggressive proposal the commission is considering, modifying Truth in Sentencing, would take Illinois policy all the way back to the mid-1990s.

"If that's the most aggressive thing we can do, that can't be that aggressive," Maki says. "I mean, the 1990s wasn't a crazy time in our history in terms of crime control. We were still using prison a lot — way more than any other country was."

Commissioners are supposed to meet again next month. They'll soon have to decide whether a bridge to the '90s is a bridge too far.

Brian Mackey formerly reported on state government and politics for NPR Illinois and a dozen other public radio stations across the state. Before that, he was A&E editor at The State Journal-Register and Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.
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