Saturday, February 20, 2010

What's the Matter with Illinois?

The recent machinations in the Illinois legislature point to the often schizophrenic response of policymakers grappling with two apparently incompatible problems- dwindling resources and a zest for being tough on crime.

Like many other states, the Illinois prison population has exploded, doubling since the 1980s to about 45,000. According to NPR, the overcrowding has been fueled in part by tough drug laws. In addition, more than 30,000 former inmates are currently on parole. Those inmates and parolees cost Illinois taxpayers more than $1 billion per year.

Governor Pat Quinn faced with a budget shortfall instituted an early release program to save some money. The projections from the Department of Corrections were that Illinois would save $5 million by releasing some prisoners early. The inmates were to be equipped with monitoring devices and offered treatment programs on the street. The problem was that Illinois was incapable of not only tracking the offenders, but the state wasn't even sure who was released. The early release plan was suspended after some of the released offenders committed new crimes.

As a result the legislature swung into action. A House committee recently approved revising the early release plan. The bill would stop prisons from awarding "good time" for prisoners who had not served some minimum time in state prison.

At the same time the Illinois House approved legislation that would impose tougher penalties on heroin dealers. According to the Chicago Tribune, the minimum sentence for possessing five grams of heroin with the intent to sell would jump from four years to six years under the measure.

My Take

The heroin legislation would further complicate the prison overcrowding problem being addressed by the proposed early release legislation. On one hand the legislature wants to let non-violent offenders (often drug offenders) out early and on the other hand they want to keep some drug dealers longer. What's worse, both pieces of inconsistent legislation are sponsored by the same lawmaker, Representative Dennis Reboletti.

There is one more aspect to Illinois' bizarre plan to deal with prison overcrowding. The governor wants to sell the Thompson Correctional Center to the federal government to house the Gitmo detainees. According to the Medill Reports, the governor has the authority to sell surplus property without the consent of the legislature, according to an opinion released by Attorney General Lisa Madigan. It is safe to assume that the governor's intent has little to do with rights of detainees and everything to do with a spiralling budget.

However, the House recently passed a bill requiring lawmakers to approve all sales of expensive state property, including the Thompson prison. The proposal would require the state to receive approval from the General Assembly before selling unused, state-owned property valued at over $1 million. Senator Randall M. Hultgren, who co-sponsored the bill said, “I think the worst thing is to sell it and realize that we really needed it … for our own prison population.”

Illinois does need the Thompson Correctional Center. The state just can't afford to fully staff it. Why? The corrections budget, which soared to $1 billion when prisons were flush with inmates and staff, is now being painfully and often imprudently pruned.

No comments:

Post a Comment