Incarceration is one of the most important civil rights issues of our day. With approximately 2.4 million people incarcerated, America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. The problem is especially acute in Illinois. Non-violent offenders comprise over 60% of the prison and jail population in America, and in Illinois they constitute almost 70% of inmates. In 2010, Illinois reported the largest increase of its prison population among all other states. Incarceration is also overtly racial, despite the fact that African Americans use drugs at the same rate as Whites and Latinos, African Americans represented an average of 80 percent of all persons admitted to Illinois prisons for drug offenses in the 1990s. The critical need for incarceration reform prompted the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights to review nationwide reforms that are providing alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders.
The following article assesses the current landscape of incarceration reform by identifying specific reforms seeking to provide incarceration alternatives for non-violent offenders, highlighting states that have implemented comprehensive versions of these reforms, and taking a critical look at Illinois’ policy towards non-violent offenders.
Implementing reforms for non-violent offenders has gained momentum recently, and such reforms have been accompanied by notable success. All 17 states that have cut their imprisonment rates also experienced a decline in crime rates. Moreover, keeping non-violent offenders out of the incarceration system saves resources and allows states to reallocate those resources for offenders who pose a threat to public safety. States have implemented reforms by widely establishing drug courts and diversion programs, updating legislation to reduce the severity level of non-violent offenses, relying on alternative sentencing options, and decriminalizing marijuana.
Although Illinois has enacted legislative changes that effect non-violent offenders, there are still important reforms it can adopt to critically impact its incarceration rate of non-violent offenders. The current trend of reforms nationwide provides useful examples for Illinois to draw upon. The Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights is alert to the need for reform, and hopes this article prompts a preliminary discussion on strategic ways to implement such reforms.
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