Progress slow in prison reform; politics seems the reason

Criminal justice reform in Illinois has been slow-moving and much of the change that has been realized is illusory at best; in fact, there has been more politics around justice system reform than meaningful change.

Examples of the smoke and mirrors surrounding justice system change can be found in some of the legislative proposals and new laws that were based on recommendations from the 2016 report issued by the Illinois Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform, which was convened by Governor Bruce Rauner to further the goal of a 25% reduction in the incarcerated population in Illinois by 2025.

While these new laws may capture the spirit of reform, in practice their implementation has fallen short, failing to accomplish the goal of a smaller, more rehabilitative and effective system.

Commission Recommendation #18, for example, called for the Illinois Department of Corrections to expand its use of discretionary sentencing credits, which enable prisoners to reduce their prison sentences by up to six months in return for good behavior, or participating in jobs or treatment programs.

That recommendation led the legislature to pass SB1607 last year, which modified the previous statute on sentencing credits. The new law, Public Act 100-0575, took effect January 8 and created Earned Discretionary Sentencing Credits (EDSC).

The clear purpose of the law was to expand, rather than restrict, the use of discretionary sentencing credit so that, in Governor Rauner’s words, “[m]ore inmates [have] the opportunity to strive to return sooner to a productive life…”

As it stands, however, nine months after the new law became effective, IDOC has yet to propose how it will exercise its discretion to award EDSC. IDOC appears not to have taken any action to implement EDSC and award discretionary credits to deserving prisoners, frustrating the law’s intent.

IDOC’s inaction and silence on the implementation of EDSC has generated confusion and discord.

Three quarters of the way through 2018 those who are eligible and deserving of “earned” sentence reductions remain in the dark regarding when they might leave custody and return to their families and productive citizenry – an uncertainty that fuels anxiety and defeats reentry planning efforts.

Stakeholders remain uninformed as to how and when IDOC plans to put EDSC into effect and exercise its discretionary power under the new law. This is not only a derogation of duty, it has created an untenable situation.

The intent and purpose of the law is to use sentencing credits to reduce the number of incarcerated prisoners, allowing better use of limited resources. It is IDOC’s responsibility to determine the standards and process for implementation, award EDSC, and make all of the relevant information publicly available.

IDOC did not respond to many of our association’s questions about implementation of this new law. Delays were blamed on a new electronic system being rolled out to help with the application of discretionary sentence credits; at one meeting an administrator pointed the finger at politics for the holdup in implementing EDSC.

Use of discretionary sentencing credits are never popular during an election year. But waiting for the politically-right time to implement this law not only undercuts the intent of the law, it frustrates efforts to teach people who are incarcerated that efforts to rehabilitate oneself and demonstrate conforming behavior will be recognized.

Political stalling defeats chances of meaningful justice system reform. Politics will not fix our broken criminal justice system, sound policy and bold efforts stand a chance.

Jennifer Vollen-Katz is the executive director of the John Howard Association, an organization dedicated to prison reform