In 1991, the incarceration rate in Illinois was 250 inmates per 1,000 population. Since then the crime rate has gone down 40% for property crimes and 30% for violent crimes. Yet the prison population has increased to 400 inmates per 1,000 population. Something is not working in the state’s criminal justice system. The good news is that there is bipartisan support to reform the system. The challenge for reformers is to figure out how to reduce the prison population without endangering the safety of the general population.
Research from around the country suggests that to succeed, any reform needs to be systemic, addressing a number of issues. These issues include juvenile incarceration in adult populations, pre-trial diversion, indigent defense, sentencing, parole, rehabilitation and asset forfeiture. In addition to these, reform should address the core causes of criminal activity that have resulted from divestment in our low income communities ranging from lack of affordable housing, quality education, and access to healthcare and social services, to a lack of jobs and business opportunities.
Ann supports comprehensive criminal justice reform. “The increase in incarceration developed as we reduced our investment in the social safety net over the past 30 years,” says Ann. “So our first task has to be investing in our communities. Then we can work in a bipartisan way to identify best practices that are developing in other states and change our laws to incorporate those practices in Illinois.”
One idea being practiced elsewhere that Ann sees as particularly promising is to provide access for inmates to vocational education programs, similar to those she is proposing for high schools. “If we are going to return inmates to productive lives in our society, we have to start by providing then with the skills necessary to reintegrate into the society while they are still incarcerated.”