By Edith Brady-Lunny and Ted Gest
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.