Illinois prison population falls; system still considered overcrowded

Prison Bars
The head of the John Howard Association, Jennifer Vollen-Katz, says Illinois prisons still have about 12,000 inmates too many. (Flickr/MichaelCoghlan)

By Illinois Radio Network

SPRINGFIELD – New numbers released by the Illinois Department of Corrections show that Illinois’ prison population dropped by 2,485 in the past year and by more than 4,200 since fiscal 2014.

The total prison population was 44,680 as of July 1, down from 47,165 in June 2015 and 48,921 in June 2014.

Gov. Bruce Rauner resolved to reduce the prison population by 25 percent over the next decade. He devised the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform to come up with recommendations to reach the goal. While the downward trend started before the commission released its recommendations and passed subsequent legislation, recommendations from the commission have been taken up by judges and law enforcement.
Others cite the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana as a reason for the drop in incarcerated Illinoisans.

John Howard Association Executive Director Jennifer Vollen-Katz said it’s a great sign to begin reversing a decades-long upward trend. “It’s a step in the right direction,” Vollen-Katz said. “It’s a number we haven’t seen in many years.”

But Vollen-Katz said the state is taking steps in the other direction, with bills such as the one Rauner signed into law this week, passed unanimously by the state legislature, which strengthens punishments for first-time gun offenders. “As you criminalize more things, and as you lengthen the period of incarceration as punishment, you are creating a logjam,” Vollen-Katz said.

Vollen-Katz said that, even with the new lower number, Illinois’ prison system is still over capacity by nearly 12,000. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, taxpayers pay approximately $40,000 every year to incarcerate someone in Illinois.

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