Social Justice

Justice Reform in Illinois: It’s Time to Go Big and Lead the Nation


Dan Cooper, Ph.D., is Co-Director of the Adler University Institute on Social Exclusion. His background is in community development, including violence prevention, youth development, organizing and coalition-building, housing, economic development, program evaluation, and strategic planning.

Earlier this summer, President Obama called for reforms to our country’s criminal justice system at a speech to the NAACP and at a visit to Oklahoma’s Federal Correctional Institution El Reno.

His message was clear: Our criminal justice system isn’t smart, isn’t keeping us safe, and isn’t fair. He called for reduced non-violent drug sentences, more job training for re-entrants, and increased early childhood education.

Justice reform is emerging as one of the few issues enjoying bipartisan support across the country. In Illinois, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has called for a 25 percent reduction in the state’s prison population by 2025. Rauner made his case in an op-ed co-written by state Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Democrat. Reducing the enormous cost of the criminal justice system is an outcome that appeals to everyone, especially cash-strapped states like Illinois.

But emerging consensus about what “common sense” justice system reform actually is—reduced sentences for low-level drug “offenders,” for example—falls way short. It fails to acknowledge that our nation’s over-reliance on incarceration for all “offenses” has not only failed to produce successful outcomes for those convicted—it also has left whole neighborhoods and communities worse off. And these are the same black and brown communities whose segregated roots trace back to years of housing discrimination.

Reducing the number of people sent to prison would be a great start, but simply reducing and walking away will not lead to greater public safety. What’s more, focusing exclusively on the low-hanging fruit of drug “offenses” is not likely to lead to the hoped-for 25 percent reduction in Illinois’ prison population.

Working with data released by the Chicago Justice Project, my colleagues and I calculated how much Chicago incarceration, over the life of prison sentences, costs Illinois taxpayers. The costs are staggering and represent only a five-year period of sentences. DataMade, a civic technology company, built the website Chicago’s Million Dollar Blocks based on our work to illustrate block level expenditure.

Over a five-year period, for example, taxpayers were put on the hook to spend approximately $550 billion to lock up Austin residents. More than 50 percent of this spending was for non-violent drug offenses. This should be a scandal, given the dismal track record of “rehabilitation” through incarceration. In Illinois, about half of people sentenced to prison will return again within three years.

Some recent research has also shown that the higher the number of people cycling in and out of prison in a neighborhood, the more likely it is that crime rates will actually go up instead of down. Incarceration is costly, ineffective at rehabilitation, and detrimental to neighborhoods.

If we are serious about justice system reform, we should divert money each year from corrections and reinvest it into neighborhoods that have been devastated by our unjust mass incarceration system. If we are serious about reform, we will support alternatives such as drug treatment, and invest fully in prevention efforts.

If we are really serious, we will work to fix the damage that incarceration has inflicted on urban communities of color, by reducing the prison population across all “offense” categories, and reinvesting savings into developing more equitable communities.

Will it be difficult? Certainly. But it can be done?

The governor has appointed the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform to provide recommendations on reducing our prison population. Let’s hope they propose bold solutions that work across sectors to reinvest justice dollars into improving places.

Healthy, thriving neighborhoods are our best bet to achieving public safety, reducing crime, and reducing the prison population. It would be great if our next president visits Illinois to highlight our nation-leading criminal justice reforms.