BLOOMINGTON — As states grapple with persistently high prisoner numbers, with more than 2 million people in prisons and jails nationwide, the main focus now is on the back end of the criminal justice system — reducing the time inmates stay behind bars.
Some reformers are urging a similar focus on the front end — jailing fewer people in the first place.
One state that is trying to do both, with some success, is Illinois.
Gov. Bruce Rauner has set an ambitious goal of cutting prisoner rolls 25 percent by 2025. The number had jumped from fewer than 10,000 inmates three decades ago to more than 48,000 in 2015; it is the nation’s eighth-largest state inmate total. Providing cells, food, medical care and other services cost Illinois taxpayers $1.3 billion annually.
Under Rauner, the state already has cut that number by almost 7,000.
If prison is the caboose of the criminal justice train for offenders, the local criminal justice system is the engine, the place where decisions are made on who goes to prison in the first place.
A Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform appointed by Rauner urged that local criminal justice officials collaborate more on policies to better control inmate numbers.
BLOOMINGTON — Local criminal justice councils are just one piece in Illinois’ effort to cut its prison population.
One of the first Criminal Justice Coordinating Councils (CJCC) was started in McLean County in 2011 to address chronic overcrowding at the county jail.
At the time, the county ranked highest among the state’s 20 largest counties in its rate of sending drug defendants to state prison, with a total of 92.1 per 100,000 residents, said Malcolm Young, who studied variations in crime and arrest rates and commitments to state prisons among Illinois counties when he directed a program at the Bluhm Legal Clinic of Northwestern University.
A group of elected and appointed policy makers, community members, attorneys and law enforcement officials met around the same table for the first time to examine the strengths and shortcomings of the local system.
“The CJCC erased the boundaries between the departments as we all worked together for the overall criminal justice system,” said former McLean County Sheriff Mike Emery, who helped initiate new policies to prune the jail population. Emery did not seek re-election in 2014 and now is law enforcement coordinator for the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Central District of Illinois.
Emery started the practice of letting judges and other decision-makers know when the jail was nearing capacity, putting more emphasis on the possible release of low-level offenders at bond hearings.
Defendants’ participation in a pre-trial release program allowed them to build a record of conduct for use later in their cases, said Emery, adding the pre-trial release reports “gave judges more options than incarceration” when it came to sentencing.
Before the reform measures, inmates who were unable to pay as little as $100 to be released on bail sat for months while their cases moved slowly through the court system.
In one of his first alerts to the chief judge, Emery pointed out that 10 inmates were in jail on ordinance violations — the lowest form of criminal conduct. Now, defendants on such infractions and similar non-violent offenses require only their word that they'll appear for future court dates to avoid a jail stay.
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Data compiled by the council documented major changes in the jail population.
By 2015, jail usage began to tip significantly toward serious felony defendants. The total bed days for low-level felonies and misdemeanors — a measurement of overnight stays — were down an average of about 30 percent compared with 2007.
The county’s crime rate also was decreasing, and police agencies have reported fewer arrests this year, too. The county’s total of 1,462 felony cases filed in 2016 was slightly below the previous year, but the total has generally increased since 2011, when about 1,100 felonies were charged.
The shift in McLean County to using the county jail mostly for holding defendants charged with the most severe offenses is a likely contributor to the lower number sent to state prison, said David Olson, co-director of the Center for Criminal Justice Research, Policy and Practice at Loyola University in Chicago, who served on Rauner’s commission.
“We know from research that if people are not detained pre-trial, their chances of going to prison are less,” Olson said.
The ability to remain out of jail while a case is pending allows people to keep their jobs, take care of their families and, in some cases, begin efforts to address mental health and substance abuse issues that may have contributed to their offenses. Defendants also have greater opportunity to meet with their lawyers and assist with their defense when they are not sitting in jail.
Illinois Adult Redeploy is a state program that offers grant money to counties for community-based services, providing financial incentives for counties to divert people from prison by keeping them in the community. It also played a part in reducing the number of defendants McLean County sends to state prisons each year.
There also has been a policy shift toward probation as the preferred result in non-violent criminal cases. The move to provide defendants with several chances to succeed before sending them to prison has the support of each level of the local justice system, including the judiciary, whose representatives serve on the council.
Cassy Taylor, director of McLean County court services and a member of the council, said the collaboration between local and state agencies “creates data-driven decision-making, so we are making smart decisions with the resources we have.”
The result, said Taylor, is an agreement on what she terms “the philosophy of community corrections.”
The preliminary results of these changes are promising.
Between 2011 and 2016, there was a steady decrease in the percentage of convicted defendants from McLean County sentenced to state prison. In 2011, 42 percent went to prison and 57 percent were put on probation. By 2016, 29 percent of convicted felons were sent to prison and 70 percent got probation.
In all, state prison admissions from the county dropped from 385 in 2011 to 293 in 2016.
Loyola’s Olson has been studying the impact of local criminal justice councils on justice systems in five Illinois communities, including McLean County.
The reduction in the number of McLean County defendants heading to prison is indicative of what collaboration can accomplish, said Olson. “You’ve got this drop in admissions to prisons because in part they’re using prison less as a sanction,” he said.