Illinois prisons

Brian Mackey/Illinois Public Radio

Partisan gridlock has caused Illinois to run without a full budget for more than a year-and-a-half. But there's one area Democrats and Republicans are working together.

It's one of the rare bright spots in Springfield: Members of both parties have been coming together to improve the criminal justice system.

"I think that's right. In fact, in the bill that you just called me about -- there was very strong bipartisan support."

Representative Barbara Flynn Currie is majority leader in the Illinois House. The "bill" she referred to is now a law.

flickr user / Michael Coghlan "Prison Bars" (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Any day now, Governor Bruce Rauner's criminal justice reform commission is expected to release its final set of recommendations.

It's trying to figure out how to safely reduce Illinois' prison population by 25 percent over the next decade. 

The commission came out with a relatively easy set of recommendations last year. This round of ideas could be more politically difficult.

For example: reducing so-called drug-free zones around schools, parks and churches from a thousand feet to 500 feet.

Flickr user Tim (Timothy) Pearce / "Prison cell with bed inside Alcatraz main building san francisco california" (CC BY 2.0)

The Illinois Department of Corrections says the state’s prison population dropped by 9 percent this past year.

That’s a good start toward Governor Bruce Rauner’s goal of a 25 percent reduction by 2025.

But Jennifer Vollen-Katz, with prison watchdog the John Howard Association, says the hard part is still to come.

“The 9 percent reduction is great, but the next 16 percent is going to be difficult,” she says. “We are really going to have to confront some things that are much more political and more divisive, like truth in sentencing and mandatory minimums.”

A new survey argues criminals should get rehabilitation rather than punishment; the recommendation comes straight from crime victims themselves.

The study says one in three Illinoisans have been a victim of crime in the last decade. More likely to be victimized are people who are younger and lower-income, as well as blacks, Latinos and residents of Chicago.

Lenore Anderson is president of the Alliance for Safety and Justice, which commissioned the survey. She says contrary to the conventional wisdom, a majority of victims do not support long prison sentences.

"Prison Bars" by Flickr User Michael Coghlan / (CC X 2.0)

Most of the Illinois Department of Corrections workers have completed mental-illness training as part of  a settlement over how prisons treat inmates with mental health disorders.

State Prison Director John Baldwin says the training will make working in prison safer. 

"Seventy-eight percent of all assaults on staff across the United States are committed by an offender with an identified behavioral health issue," he said.  

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