25% by 2025: Reducing the Prison Population by 25%

What does a 25% reduction look like?

Governor Rauner's Executive Order states the commission shall make recommendations for amendments to state law to reduce the prison population in Illinois by 25 percent from the current levels. Figure 1 shows annual prison populations through 2014, a projection of population growth based on trends from 2002 to 2013, and two 25-percent reductions - one showing current population and one showing the projected population.

Two Policy Options: Reducing Admissions and Lengths of Stay

National and Illinois-specific research by the Sentencing Policy Advisory Council (SPAC), ICJIA, and Loyola University showed two factors that increase the prison population and could be addressed with changes in policies: admissions and increased lengths of stay. Solutions vary by cost, impact on public safety, and a time commitment by the justice system and the public.

Prison Admissions

Admissions can be reduced with prison diversion initiatives and a change in parole policy to decrease the number of offenders returning to prison due to technical violations. A reduction in recidivism also could be achieved with evidence based programming in diversions, in prison, during reentry, and in the community.

Diverting low risk offenders who would likely spend less than a year in prison slightly reduces prison population while providing community-based treatment for offenders. Implementing presumptive sentencing to probation for Class 3 and 4 offenders who have never been on probation in the past and no prior violent convictions could remove 2,000 to 3,000 prison admissions per year.

The Adult Redeploy Illinois (ARI) program allows judges and prosecutors to divert individuals who would otherwise be sentenced to IDOC into probation-based community treatment modalities such as drug and specialty courts and intensive probation. ARI programs are available in nearly 40 counties across the state and could easily expand with additional funding and community collaboration.

Changes to parole policies and parole staffing levels have corresponded to a substantial increase in the rate of technical violators returning to Illinois prison over the past 20 years. See SPAC's Drivers of the Sentenced Population: MSR Violators for a detailed examination.

Evidence-based offender treatment in prisons and in communities can reduce recidivism and an ultimate return to prison. Recidivism, defined here as a return to prison within three years of release, has hovered at about 50 percent over the last decade. Evaluations of the Sheridan and Southwestern Illinois Correctional Center (SWICC) drug treatment programs showed the programs contribute to reductions in recidivism. The need for drug treatment among offenders far exceeds program availability, however.

Length of Stay in Prison

Changing lengths of stay also may reduce the size of the prison population. Lengths of prison stays could be impacted by:

  • Changing the sentence length ranges for felony classes.
  • Awarding credits for good conduct, treatment participation, etc.
  • Reducing required percentages of imprisonment in sentences handed down under Truth-in-Sentencing laws.
  • Using risk and needs assessment to guide sentencing and lengths of stay.

Statutory changes to sentencing laws could be made to reduce lengths of stay, such as reducing the sentence minimums and maximums within each felony class. For example, Class X felonies have mandatory minimum prison sentences of six to thirty years. Converting Class X drug offenses to Class 1 (a four- to 15-year sentence range) would allow a reduced, but still fairly long, incarceration period and allow probation in some cases.

Increasing access to these credits is a low cost option that decreases lengths of stay, encourages participation in rehabilitative programming, and reward goods conduct. Allowing more inmates to receive and accumulate good conduct and sentence credits could reduce the lengths of stay while providing an incentive for prisoners to behave and prepare for community reentry.

Current program credit restrictions allow inmates to receive one half-day credit for each day of certain rehabilitative programming upon program completion. However, certain offenses and prior prison stays may restrict availability of this credit.

Another credit type, Meritorious and Supplemental Meritorious Good Time credits were eliminated for most inmates in state fiscal year 2011. This added two to three months of time to all prisoners' lengths of stay.

Truth-in-sentencing laws require that 100, 85, or 75 percent of the actual sentence is served, based on offense. For example, someone sentenced to 10 years in prison would serve 8.5 years in prison under the 85 percent truth-in-sentencing requirement. Reducing the percentage of stay lengths required under truth-in-sentencing laws by as little as five to 10 percent would decrease bed-years (number of years a person will actually spend in prison) of the prison population substantially without drastically altering the amount of time these individuals typically serve. This small change applied to one thousand inmates would save one thousand bed-years.

Risk and Needs Assessment

Risk and needs assessment can be used at points in the criminal justice system to identify individuals for diversion, treatment, and sentencing options. Risk assessment incorporates individual factors, such as criminal history, to determine the risk of re-offending. It can be used to identify an individual's mental health and/or substance abuse needs and appropriate use of treatment and services to reduce recidivism. Today, risk and needs assessments, if conducted at all, generally occur after the individual has been sentenced, providing little to no guidance on the most cost-effective and appropriate sentencing option.

The Risk and Needs Assessment (RANA) Task Force was formed by the Crime Reduction Act of 2009 to develop plans to adopt, validate, and utilize a risk assessment tool for state prisoners. The use of risk assessment can inform decision making with the goal of reducing victimization and improving the effectiveness of rehabilitative programming. Recently, in a cost-benefit analysis on implementing risk assessment at IDOC, researchers found that the recidivism reductions and associated benefits from using a risk assessment tool at parole are large enough to offset the cost of implementation.