In Illinois Legislature, A Culture Change On Criminal Sentencing


Being "tough on crime" has long been a popular stance for politicians, leading to longer and longer prison sentences. But some Illinois lawmakers are trying to break that cycle

For a long time, Illinois lawmakers had a simple approach to dealing with crime: "Something bad happened, let's enhance the penalty," says Rep. Mike Zalewski, a Democrat from Riverside.

"A member would go before the committee and say, 'I have a constituent that was hurt by "X" act, and I need this penalty enhanced because that would solve the problem,' " Zalewski says. "Members are starting to say well that [wouldn't necessarily] solve the problem."

And he's not kidding about that knee-jerk reaction. It's a safe bet that when criminal legislation is named after someone — like "Mike's Law" or "Sarah's Law” — more often than not it's taking something that's already illegal, and making it more illegal.

The thought was, it was good policy and good politics.

But lately, lawmakers have been moving away from this. Kathy Saltmarsh is a lawyer and longtime observer of the state legislature. She's head of the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council, a relatively new outfit that helps the governor and General Assembly assess the consequences of sentencing policy.

Saltmarsh says the number of penalty enhancement bills has dropped significantly in recent years.

"I think they've become a little bit more difficult to actually pass. Which is astounding, in a way," Saltmarsh says.

She says the House committee that deals with criminal law in particular has been asking tough questions about the effectiveness and wisdom of ratcheting up prison sentences.

"There's an awful lot of information out there," Saltmarsh says. "There's been a pretty ongoing and robust national discussion about our overuse of incarceration, a growing awareness that many of those we incarcerate are there because of addiction or mental health issues. And when you're imprisoned, the likelihood that you have will that addressed is really pretty small."

That’s because even though the Department of Corrections consumes more than $1.2 billion dollars a year, its budget is stretched thin. State prisons are also crowded - at more than 150 percent of their rated capacity.

Those are among the factors that have driven sentencing changes across the country. That’s given the movement a perhaps surprising ally: conservatives. The Texas-based group Right on Crime has the support of big name Republicans like former House speaker Newt Gingrich and former Florida governor Jeb Bush.

Right on Crime's Derek Cohen, a criminologist, says this requires a rethink of what prison is for.

"Prison is for the people we're scared of, not the people we're mad at," Cohen says. "In other words, prison is for the people that need to be incapacitated while they receive rehabilitation or while they receive their punishment."

Cohen says Right on Crime has found success in Republican-led states, and thus the group hasn't been active in strongly Democratic Illinois. It seems the Republican reputation for being tough on crime gives them cover when it comes to a less politicized sentencing scheme.

"It's almost a case of: it took Nixon to go to China, (and) it took Texas to say this needs to stop right now," Cohen says.

Rep. Mike Zalewski says Illinois lawmakers used to have a simpler sentencing philosophy: "Something bad happened, let's enhance the penalty."

Now that sort of approach may finally be coming to Illinois.

After last year's heated debate over longer sentences for gun crimes — a plan pushed unsuccessfully by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel — legislators seem willing to take a fresh look at the balance between punishment and rehabilitation in Illinois.

Zalewski, the state rep we heard from at the beginning of our story, is leading a bipartisan, House and Senate super-committee that's supposed to look at sentencing. The group has a special charge to examine racial disparities in both law enforcement and prison time.

Zalewski says the idea is to continue the move away from politics in sentencing: "Basically, I think we're relying on our ability to separate the political heat from the reality that this isn't always the best option, just to enhance something."

The group will hold its first hearing in two weeks (July 15); its report to the General Assembly is due Dec. 1.

Story source: Illinois Public Radio