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A new state law addresses the need to lower the number of inmates in Illinois prisons by offering sentencing credits and more opportunities for probation. 

BLOOMINGTON — Local criminal justice councils are just one piece in Illinois’ effort to cut its prison population.

Another is a sentencing reform law that took effect Jan. 1. Several provisions allow defendants who violate conditions of probation to be jailed locally instead of going to state prison.

Another section provides that minor offenders remain in counties under probation supervision rather than spending about nine months in state prison, a likely sentencing outcome before the new law.

The law also allows state prison officials to give “supplemental sentencing credits” that offer an expanded group of inmates reduced prison stays for taking part in rehabilitation programs behind bars.

Finally, the law repealed mandatory prison terms for selected offenses, many of them drug crimes.

James Austin, a consultant based in Washington, D.C. and California who has studied the Illinois correctional system, estimates that the law’s provisions will reduce the state prison rolls by between 5,000 and 7,000, depending on how it is implemented across the state.

Overall, he says, the prison inmate population could drop to 35,400 by 2024, a 27 percent reduction from where it stands today.

The new Illinois law was termed “unique” by Lenore Anderson, president of the national Alliance for Safety and Justice, because it combines state-level and local reforms and adds help for crime victims.

“This is a model that other states should take a look at,” she said.

The Illinois reforms also got national recognition when the state was one of the first three chosen to take part in an ongoing National Criminal Justice Reform Project, sponsored by the National Criminal Justice Association and the National Governors Association, to promote system-wide criminal justice reform that requires evidence-based policies.

A lot of criminal justice reform in recent years has focused exclusively on governors and state legislatures that have the power to set maximum prison terms, and to have control over the amount of time prisoners end up spending behind bars.

Young, who studied Illinois counties’ justice practices, said that “all criminal justice is local,” adding that justice policies are “highly individualized among localities,” and that “extensive variations in government responses demonstrate the significant part local discretion and preference play in determining how criminal justice resources, including prison incarceration, are allocated.”

Eric Cadora of the New York City-based Justice Mapping organization originated the term “justice reinvestment” that is used as shorthand for cutting prison populations and using the money saved for providing services to offenders.

Cadora welcomes state-level reforms, but says that local criminal justice systems like those in McLean County also should be a key source for change.

“Local jurisdictions are in a unique position to share the risk for … substantial reform efforts because they are more directly accountable for both the potential costs and benefits associated with the impact of such reforms on their constituents,” he says.

Follow Edith Brady-Lunny on Twitter: @pg_blunny

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