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Sentencing Reform Advocates Urge State To Prioritize Incarceration Alternatives

ACLU of Illinois

Decades of tough-on-crime policies have begun to give way in recent years to conversations about alternatives to incarceration.

State lawmakers on Tuesday heard from advocates who say interventions that get at the roots of crime, like mental health and poverty, can be more effective at reducing crime.

Greg Jackson of the Community Justice Action Fund, which provides support to communities of color affected by gun violence, told members of the Senate’s Public Safety Committee the threat of incarceration does not deter many of the people he works with, but that a lack of opportunities for personal growth is what leads to recidivism.

“The reason we are seeing gun violence increase during COVID-19 is not because there’s less officers, it’s not because people were released, it’s because the root causes that led to that desperation for someone to lash out, to rob, to carjack, to steal, to harm have intensified,” Jackson said.

Last month during the General Assembly’s Lame Duck Session, the Legislative Black Caucus pushed through a series of criminal justice-focused proposals in an omnibus reform package, HB 3653 . In addition to ending the practice of cash bail, lawmakers empowered members of law enforcement and judges with discretionary powers when dealing with certain offenses.

For example, HB 3653 allows for judicial amendments to mandatory minimum sentencing requirements in order to offer alternative forms of rehabilitation. The bill is awaiting Gov. JB Pritzker’s signature.

Todd Belcore of Chicago-based advocacy organization Social Change told NPR Illinois last month similar practices have already been implemented in Michigan, Georgia, and Florida. Belcore described the change to mandatory minimums as a benefit to not only offenders, but judges as well.

“The judge is forced to throw someone in prison, a nonviolent person, a person that they find not to be a risk to public society no matter what the justice really requires,” Belcore said.

By not mandating jail time, Belcore argued it increases the likelihood someone can better turn their lives around and not separate families from one another.

HB3653 also outlined alternative responses for offenses committed by adolescents whose brains are still developing.

Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli — who also spoke to NPR Illinois last month — said the court system has failed to consider an offender's brain development when considering extended sentences.

“An 18-, 19-, 20-year old is still not a fully formed adult,” Campanelli said. “The [frontal lobe] is that last part to develop, which helps people make good decisions and taking risks.”

In Illinois, a life sentence can be triggered by the combination of Class X felony offenses, which are one step below first degree murder charges.

Under HB 3653, Class X felony offenses will not count toward a possible life sentence until a person turns 21.

Campanelli also applauded changes in how a Class X felony is achieved in Illinois. Previously, a combination of Class 2 felonies — which included the sale and distribution of illegal drugs — could become a Class X felony offense.

Under HB 3653, only a combination of Class 2 forcible felonies — offenses like sexual assault, robbery, and arson — would count towards a Class X felony.

Beyond changes to legal definitions, HB 3653 includes provisions that would allow police officers broader ability to offer citations for certain offenses instead of arresting an alleged perpetrator. Proponents argued an offender who is offered a lighter punishment for offenses like loitering or solicitation will be less likely to commit more serious offenses as an adult.

Kathy Saltmarsh of the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council shared with the Public Safety Committee a multi-decade, metadata analysis of research which explored whether increased punishments deter criminal behavior.

Saltmarsh said the studies her organization analyzed consistently concluded that increased or harsher prison sentences do not result in dramatically reduced levels of recidivism nor crimes conducted.

“Those are the types of findings you just don’t see in research very often,” Saltmarsh said. “You don’t see that consistency over time with that number of different ways of looking at it.”

There are currently around 28,000 incarcerated people in correctional facilities across Illinois. Saltmarsh pointed out that when she was a part of the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform created in 2015 during former Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration, the goal was to reduce the state’s prison population to around 36,000 by 2025.

Releasing some inmates with little time left in their sentence during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring reduced the prison population, but advocates say the number is still high; Ben Ruddell of the American Civil Liberties Union cited Illinois’ incarcerated population at approximately 6,000 in 1974.

Ruddell said many of the tough-on-crime legislation from years past were introduced in a reactionary manner to short-term crime trends, both real and perceived. Those policies persist years later.

“Our laws still carry the legacy of several decades of policies founded on the now discredited premise that tougher penalties equals more safety,” Ruddell said “And there are those out there that would urge us to move backwards.”

Jackson of the Community Justice Action Fund shared with the committee how in 2013, he became a victim of gun violence. Jackson said after being hospitalized for his injuries, he did not receive therapeutic assistance or other wrap-around services which can help reduce the likelihood of gun violence survivors continuing into a vicious cycle of violence and criminal behavior.

Jackson said many of the gun violence offenders his organization deals with are first-time offenders. In lieu of relying entirely upon incarceration, Jackson said a focus should be placed on providing intervention programs and opportunities for at-risk communities.

In addition to educational and social service resources, Jackson said for affected communities cognitive therapy options are also needed to address a gap in trauma rehabilitation.

Kim Miller of the Alliance for Safety and Justice said many people who are survivors of trauma — particularly gun violence — suffer so-called “moral injuries.” Such traumatic events — along with negative environmental stimuli — can reinforce feelings of low self-worth by those caught up in the system for low-level crimes.

When left untreated, such feelings can manifest violently and perpetuate criminal actions.

“While we are better at acknowledging moral injury for individuals who serve our country in war,” Miller said. “We rarely talk about moral injury and the devastating impact it can have on survivors of crime — or how traumatic experience can combine with and feed off of forms of prejudice in our culture that degenerate groups of people like racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and misogyny.”

Miller urged lawmakers to continue investing in institutions like trauma recovery centers which provide cognitive care from trained clinicians. Additionally, much like HB 3653’s intent for the justice system to acknowledge an offender’s brain development, Miller said courts should also consider a person’s level of trauma when deciding an appropriate sentence.

Derek Cantù is NPR Illinois' graduate student Public Affairs Reporting intern for the spring 2021 legislative session.
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