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Report: New York Offers Model for Cutting Crime and Costs in Illinois

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June 4, 2009 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel

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AUDIO: Listen to Malcolm Young, adjunct professor in Northwestern University's Bluhm Legal Clinic, discusses the report.

CHICAGO --- Illinois is positioned to follow New York’s lead in reducing crime and incarceration rates while opening the door to much needed savings in the state budget, according to a new Northwestern University School of Law report.

The report contrasts the crime-fighting strategies of New York and California, two large states that moved in different directions, to offer Illinois lessons about what will and won’t work in combating crime during an unprecedented downturn in the economy.

New York’s effective crime-fighting reforms are cited in contrast to the pitfalls of California’s “three-strikes-you’re-out” politics, inflexible sentencing schemes and uncontrolled corrections costs. 

With 24 recommendations, the report argues for a dramatic shift in Illinois’ tough-on-crime politics to enable the state to greatly expand upon crime- and cost-reducing strategies that really work.

“Our bond courts and pre-trial decisions need to work much better so that we quit locking up people who don’t belong in the courts or prison in the first place,” said Malcolm C. Young, adjunct professor in Northwestern Law’s Bluhm Legal Clinic.

“We need laws that recognize that many low-level drug offenders don’t have to be incarcerated as well as greatly expanded opportunities for drug-treatment services and rehabilitation.”

Young is the author of “Controlling Corrections Costs in Illinois: Lessons from the Coasts.” He founded and previously directed The Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., and was executive director of the John Howard Association of Illinois.

California increased its prison population by 31 percent from 1995 to 2007, during which time its violent and property crime rates fell by 46 and 38 percent, respectively, according to the report. Over the same time period, New York decreased its prison population by 9 percent, while its violent and property crime rates decreased by 51 and 47 percent, respectively.

“California faces a financial meltdown with a deficit in excess of $41 billion and has lost control over correction costs that have exploded fivefold since 1994 to $13 billion,” Young said.

“By contrast, the reduction of New York’s prison population could lead to the closing of four half-empty adult prisons, and more savings are likely with reduced sentences in drug cases and increased judicial discretion,” he said.

In recent years (from 1995 to 2007), Illinois’ use of incarceration and its trends in crime are closer to California’s than to New York’s, according to the report. Illinois’ increase of its prison population (20 percent) was slower than California’s (31 percent), but the upward trend is opposite to New York’s 9 percent decrease in state prisoners. Over the same time period, Illinois’ decreases in crime rates were similar to California’s but less than New York’s.

Illinois, however, the report stressed, has the tools, resources and agencies similar to those in New York to control incarceration and costs. “What Illinois needs most is the political will to move beyond the tough-on-crime rhetoric, to build on its good efforts and replicate strategies that have worked in New York and elsewhere,” Young said. 
 
New York never enacted rigid determinate sentencing and, apart from the notorious Rockefeller drug laws, avoided high mandatory minimums, according to the report. New York also invested in an infrastructure of alternatives to incarceration. It rapidly disposes of thousands of minor cases without lengthy pre-trial or post-sentencing incarceration and recently revised stiff drug-sentencing laws to keep low-level drug offenders out of prison and accommodate the release of rehabilitated offenders before the end of their sentences.
 
In contrast, California continues to succumb to pro-incarceration politics and balks at reforming its inflexible sentencing scheme, high mandatory minimums and near-life sentences for non-violent repeat offenders.

Federal studies show that the best drug treatment programs pay for themselves 12 times over, because patients who succeed have quick improvements in health and behavior, according to a story in The New York Times on the results of a study released Thursday, May 28, by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.

Among the recommendations for Illinois:  

•    Move beyond ideologically driven rhetoric to base criminal justice policies on research and objective observation.

•    Establish a research agency to help design and monitor programs that provide alternatives to incarceration.

•    Following the New York model, implement pre-trial services, diversion programs and procedural changes that will result in rapid disposition of low-level cases and more pre-trial releases for defendants not diverted from the system.

•    Encourage efforts by unions, corrections staff and the governor’s office to reduce expensive overtime now totaling tens of millions of dollars.

•    Reduce penalties in low-level drug cases.

•    Fund and provide targeted rehabilitation programs and vocational instruction for prisoners, focusing on prisoners who need treatment for medical, substance abuse, mental health and other problems to help assure their safe and productive return to their communities.

•    Permit prisoners to “serve time outside of prison,” increase earned and discretionary good time and expand work release and halfway house options.

•    Revisit indeterminate sentencing and reduce mandatory sentences, giving judges more discretion over the original sentence for some offenders.

•    Use executive working groups to devise cost-savings solutions.

•    Establish an Illinois Sentencing Commission for long-range change.