Too many people in prison

There are good alternatives to mass incarceration. We need to regain our balance.

Four decades ago, we began to create a new problem: mass incarceration. In 1974, Illinois had 6,000 people in prison. Now, Illinois has more than 40,000 people in prison. In the same period, other states and the federal government also grew their prisons at similar rates, so that our country now has more people imprisoned, compared to other countries, by each and every measure.

Our state filled its prisons beyond capacity (32,000), but we continued to add to our prison population. Crime rates began to decline in the early 1990s, but we continued to add to our prison population. Four governors tried to address excessive imprisonment, but we continued to add to our prison population.
Why? Some leaders urged us to be “tough on crime.” Prosecutors, courts and legislators responded with more prosecutions and longer sentences.

This approach, regardless of intention, is mistaken. Conservatives and liberals now agree on this. Right on Crime, a voice for “conservative criminal justice reform,” acknowledges that prisons are overused when nonviolent offenders are given lengthy sentences “and emerge more disposed to re-offend than when they entered prison.” Liberals agree: mass incarceration is a terrible mistake, damaging individuals, damaging families, damaging communities, wasting public funds. The Illinois Department of Corrections spends $1.4 billion each year, 4% of the state budget, perhaps $35,000 per inmate.

Is there a better way forward? Yes: prevention, diversion and change.

Prevention requires a network of interventions in a community, focusing particularly on young people found by the school system and youth authorities to be headed toward trouble. In Peoria, this is their “Don’t Start” program. These interventions, together with “Don’t Shoot,” which is a deterrence program focused on adults with a history of gun violence, should save lives, families and neighborhoods. And they should prevent crime, while saving the costs of incarceration.

Diversion? Sangamon County has diversion courts for people with limited criminal activity that is traceable to addiction or mental health issues or the impact of military service. If a person completes a program of careful court supervision, there is no incarceration. In Peoria, the federal court has a 20-year-old diversion program for crimes of addiction, and this saves people, saves families and saves several million dollars in costs of incarceration.

Change? In Illinois, Gov. Bruce Rauner’s Commission on Criminal Justice called in 2015 for a 25% reduction in the prison population over 10 years, and put forth 27 steps to reduce this population. The prison population declined from 47,000 in mid-2015 to 43,000 in mid-2017, the latest year reported. Illinois is making positive changes, and the new governor is expected to make further positive changes.

I believe in accountability – for all of us. While I was United States attorney, I reviewed and approved several hundred prosecutions each year, knowing these almost always ended with some imprisonment. I held others accountable.

I also held myself accountable. We are accountable for too many prosecutions, too-long sentences and too much imprisonment. We need to regain our balance. We need a network of effective interventions, to prevent and deter people from heading toward trouble. We need to press for diversion and alternatives to prison, whenever appropriate. And we need to support the changes that are happening. This is the best way forward, seeking public safety that is smart and fair.  

Jim Lewis was a civil rights worker, civil rights lawyer and law school professor. He worked for the United States Department of Justice for 39 years, ending as United States attorney here in Springfield from 2010 to 2016.

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