By Christian Mitchell and Kwame Raoul
Chicago Tribune – November 15, 2013
There is a temptation in government to respond quickly to a crisis without thinking through the long-term consequences.
It’s been a problem in Springfield for a long time on a number of issues. In the recent veto session, the General Assembly was on the verge of doing it again by passing a bill to lengthen prison terms for gun crimes. The consequences would have extended beyond the extra $600 million in prison costs over a decade. Without a more comprehensive approach, the increased inmate load could cause irreparable damage to a troubled criminal justice system that has already caused irreparable damage to thousands of men and women — many of them black and brown.
The stated goal of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Rep. Mike Zalewski, D-Riverside, to increase penalties for gun crimes is sincere and, we believe, reasonable. Criminals who terrorize our communities ought to face real consequences for their gun crimes and spend more years in prison. They need to understand that those who choose violence over peace will be held accountable.
In a vacuum, the proposal might be ready for passage. But we don’t govern in a vacuum, and we have to consider the impact on a criminal justice system that already suffers from hasty public policy changes made in past crises. The system protects a broken status quo, destroys generations of minority men and women, bankrupts taxpayers with ever-spiraling costs and fails to make our streets safe.
We need to — and can — create a comprehensive legislative solution that attempts to rehabilitate instead of incarcerate nonviolent drug addicts and makes room in our prisons for those who need to be there.
The reality is that our jail in Cook County is full, as is the entirety of the Illinois Department of Corrections, and that 40 percent of those entering the corrections system — including more than 70 percent of those in pretrial detention at Cook County Jail — are nonviolent drug offenders. Most of these crimes are drug offenses or economic crimes related to drug addiction, like theft.
Once they are released from prison, those drug offenders are ineligible for public housing and are often unable to find work. It’s no surprise so many return to prison — a virtual self-fulfilling prophecy in communities where as many as 70 percent of young men have a record (often for nonviolent drug offenses)!
Recidivism has cost Illinois billions of dollars and ruined thousands of lives. Reforming our sentencing structure to focus on the worst of the worst, and sentencing drug offenders and the mentally ill to electronic monitoring or probation — with services to help improve their lives — makes good moral and financial sense.
Illinois Democrats and Republicans should be able to find common ground on criminal justice policies. States leading on this issue include South Carolina, Kentucky, Mississippi and Texas — deep red, Republican states. They have passed bipartisan prison reform legislation focusing on alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders to make room for violent criminals, and have, in the process, lowered crime rates, reduced recidivism and saved billions of taxpayer dollars.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican candidate for president in 2012, said of these reforms that “there is real evidence, in a number of states, that you save lives, reduce crime rates and save taxpayer money.” In Texas, GOP Gov. Rick Perry has been the chief crusader for sentencing and prison reform.
We don’t need blue ribbon commissions or a yearlong study. The answers are before our eyes: best practices from other states, Illinois’ Sentencing Policy Advisory Council, the experience of our local prosecutors and public defenders. We can be tough on crime and smart on crime.
By backing the writing of tickets instead of criminal charges for possession of small amounts of marijuana, Mayor Emanuel has taken an affirmative step in that direction. That’s smart policy and something legislators should keep in mind as we search for the best responses to the public health problem of drug addiction. When we succeed, our prisons can lock up more violent offenders for longer periods of time without taking tax dollars away from other important services.
We know the answers. The proposed legislation wouldn’t take effect until July, which means we have a moment to pause and deliberate. Let’s take the time to do this right.
State Rep. Christian Mitchell, D-Chicago, represents the 26th District. State Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, represents the 13th District.
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