As states grapple with persistently high incarceration numbers, with more than two million people still in prisons and jails nationwide, the main focus has been on the back end of the justice system: reducing the time inmates stay behind bars.
Some reformers are urging a similar focus on the front end: incarcerating 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 the prison rolls 25 percent by 2025. Illinois’ incarcerated population jumped from fewer than 10,000 inmates three decades ago to more than 48,000 in 2015—the nation’s eighth largest state inmate total. Providing cells, food, medical care and other services costs taxpayers $1.3 billion annually.
Under Rauner’s policies, the state has already 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.
A Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform appointed by Rauner urged that local criminal justice officials focus on collaborative polices that would better control state incarceration numbers.
One of the first Criminal Justice Coordinating Councils (CJCC) was started in central Illinois’ McLean County in 2011 to address chronic overcrowding at the county jail.
At the time, McLean 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, according to Malcolm C. Young, former Executive Director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, who studied variations in crime and arrest rates and commitments to state prisons among Illinois counties when he directed a program on prison reentry strategies at the Bluhm Legal Clinic of Northwestern University.
The McLean coordinating council, comprising 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,” former County Sheriff Mike Emery, who helped initiate new policies to prune the jail population, said in a recent interview. Emery did not seek re-election in 2014 and now is law enforcement coordinator for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Springfield, Illinois.
Emery started the practice of letting judges and other decision makers know when his jail was nearing capacity, putting more emphasis on the possible release of low-level offenders at bond hearings. The decision of who would be released remained with judges, but the sheriff’s alert added jail population to the court’s list of considerations.
Defendants’ participation in a pre-trial release program allowed them to build a record of conduct for use later in their cases, he said.
The pre-trial release reports “gave judges more options than incarceration,” when it came to sentencing, he added.
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 ten 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 agreement to appear for future court dates to avoid a jail stay, a major change in previous policy.
Data compiled by the McLean County justice council has since documented major changes in the jail population that reflect changes in both the number of inmates and the composition of the jail’s population.
By 2015, as jail usage began to tip significantly towards 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 was also decreasing during this period, and police agencies have reported fewer arrests this year. The county’s total of 1,462 felony cases filed in 2016 was slightly below the previous year but generally were up 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 numbers sent to state prison, 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, said in an interview.
“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 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, a state program that grants funds to community-based county-level services, provides 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. The state program returns money to communities to invest in local efforts in exchange for reducing the number of people sent to prison.
There also has been a policy shift towards probation as the preferred disposition in non-violent criminal cases. The move to provide defendants with several chances to succeed before sending them to prison has the support of all levels 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 in an interview 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, added said Taylor, is an agreement on what she terms “the philosophy of community corrections.”
The preliminary results of these changes have been promising, according to data compiled recently by The Pantagraph from local circuit court records. 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 went on probation.
In all, state prison admissions from the country dropped from 385 in 2011 to 293 in 2016, court data showed.
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 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.
Almost seven years after it started, the McLean County council is still going strong. At its mid-January meeting in the local government center, members reviewed a report on the numbers of mentally ill people booked into the jail.
The broad base of knowledge developed by the council since its inception on the inner workings of the criminal justice system supports robust discussion on what the numbers mean—something that was not possible before 2011.
Illinois officials hope that four other counties that have created local criminal justice counties with the help of the state will have results similar to McLean County’s.
The local councils are just one ingredient in Illinois’ effort to cut its prison population.
Another is a sentencing reform law that that went into 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 cases of minor offenders who would normally spend about nine months in state prison remain in counties instead, under probation supervision.
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, Austin says, the prison total could drop to 35,400 by 2024, a 27 percent reduction under Rauner’s governorship.
The new Illinois law was termed “unique” by Lenore Anderson, president of the national Alliance for Safety and Justice, which advocates for survivors of crime, because it combines state-level and local reforms and adds new aid 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 (NCJA) and the National Governors Association (NGA) to promote system-wide criminal justice reform that requires on evidence-based policies.
“Illinois’ work provides a good example of how states can better support and partner with local entities to address crime and strengthen public safety,” says NCJA’s Tammy Woodhams.
Much criminal justice reform in recent years has been focused exclusively on governors and state legislatures, who have the power to set maximum prison terms and to have much 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 now 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 of changes.
“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 said.
This story is jointly published as a partnership between The Pantagraph and The Crime Report. Edith Brady-Lunny covers crime and justice affairs for The Pantagraph in Bloomington, Il., and is a former John Jay Justice Reporting Fellow. Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. They welcome comments from readers.