Illinois prison overcrowding and costs prompt new, “smart” approach to offenders

from Reboot Illinois

by Esther Franco-Payne

Thanks to concerns about the expense of prison overcrowding in Illinois but also due to increased understanding of effective approaches to reduce recidivism and to keep juveniles away from prison, Illinois state government has been on a decade-long run of enacting “smart on crime” legislation.

The long list of reforms includes raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 16 to 17; instituting an early release program for non-violent prisoners who complete drug treatment; support for after school programs and peer juries to address discipline problems in middle schools and high schools; and the creation of several specialty courts with an emphasis on rehabilitation of drug offenders and other non-violent criminals

Senate Bill 1560 (Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, and Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook) would no longer allow juvenile misdemeanants to be sent to state juvenile prisons. Because low-level juvenile offenders sent to prisons often advance to more serious crimes after incarceration, public safety can be improved by keeping them out of prisons and delivering rehabilitation services in their local communities. The Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) has estimated the law change would reduce commitments by about 110 youth each year.

SB 1560 also would require county jail or detention center confinement of individuals on aftercare (parole) from DJJ and charged with new crimes. On any give day, about 70 youth – many beyond juvenile age but not yet 21 – in DJJ prisons have been sent there because they have been charged with new crimes.

Rather than staying in the county where they are charged, counties have been able send those youth to state prisons due to parole violations. When they must appear in local courts for hearings on the new crime, DJJ must transport them to and from the home county. The change would help DJJ focus on those youth it is intended to serve and who have the best chance at rehabilitative programs and services, instead of those who are at high risk of being sentenced to the Department of Corrections (DOC).

House Bill 3718 (Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, and Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago) would end the automatic transfer of many youth to adult prisons and would restore judicial review by a juvenile judge of youth charged with crimes that do not involve physical harm to a person, including armed robbery with a firearm, aggravated vehicular hijacking and UUW. Murder, aggravated criminal sexual assault and aggravated battery with a firearm would remain automatic, but only for 16 and 17 year olds. For youth ages 15 and younger, no charge would result in automatic transfer. The automatic transfer reform responds to the Illinois Supreme Court’s expressed concern about the lack of judicial discretion in statutes requiring the automatic transfer of some juveniles to adult criminal court.

House Bill 2471 (House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, and Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park) would eliminate mandatory life-without-parole sentences for youth under 18 at the time of the offense and would require judges to consider specific age-related factors in mitigation at the time of sentencing. It also would give judges a broader set of choices when sentencing children who are transferred to adult court.

House Bill 2567 (Rep. Robyn Gabel, D-Evanston, and Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago) would help keep children under the age of 13 out of juvenile detention. Before sending a child under the age of 13 to detention, local authorities would be required to contact a local provider in the Comprehensive Community-Based Youth Services (CCBYS) network. If the CCBYS provider were not able to enroll the child in a program to receive services, the child would be placed in detention.

House Bill 3141 (Rep. Chad Hays, R-Catlin, and Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon) would require DJJ to issue an annual report detailing expenditures and data about youth in state prisons. It also would require quarterly reports to the governor and state legislators.

Senate Bill 100 (Sen. Kimberly LIghtford, D-Chicago, and Rep. William Davis, D-East Hazel Crest) would place limitations on expulsions, disciplinary removals to alternative schools and out-of-school suspensions of longer than three days and is intended to encourage other behavioral and disciplinary interventions in schools that allow children to continue receiving an education.