Illinois lawmakers are considering whether to require minimum three-year prison sentences for unlawful possession of loaded weapons. If the proposal sounds both familiar and ominous, it should: California has been down this road, and in fact is on it still.
It’s a road paved with fear and desperation, and it leads to a shocking diversion of public resources, prison overcrowding, unconstitutional treatment of inmates, federal court oversight and orders to suspend state laws and release felons before their full time is served. It’s a long road and can take a generation to walk — one tough-on-crime law is merely a first step — but it turns out to be a closed circle, taking weary travelers from get-tough laws like mandatory minimum sentences back again to crime, fear and overreliance on prisons.
Beset by gun violence, especially in Chicago, Illinois finds itself roughly in the spot on that road where California was in the 1980s after a 400% rise in violent crime over a 20-year period. That jump, by itself, increased the prison population. But so did laws passed in response to the jump that stripped judges of their traditional discretion to tailor sentences to individual offenders after examining their potential to reform or their predisposition to persist in their criminal ways. So did a strict and foolish policy that returned paroled felons to prison for technical violations such as failing to call their parole agents or for testing positive for drug use, instead of directing them to rehab or mental health treatment. So did laws that blocked any chance for felons to successfully reenter society — laws that, for example, put employment and food stamps beyond the reach of many. So did the lack, in prison and on the outside, of tested and proven cognitive behavioral therapy programs to correct antisocial and criminal attitudes.
California responded to crime by filling its prisons, building more and then filling the new ones, then overfilling them. But the state did little or nothing to change the behavior of the people it sent away. The result has been a high rate of recidivism, meaning that too many offenders returned to crime after or even before their sentences were completed, and too few successfully reentered society as productive and law-abiding members.
Members of the Select Assembly Committee on Justice Reinvestment will no doubt have their own state’s experience in mind when they meet next month in Sacramento to discuss alternative programs and criminal sentencing reform.
But they would be wise to think about Illinois as well.
Illinois should serve as a reminder of where California once was, with a rising crime rate that so stoked public fear that it moved people to demand that the state just do something, anything, to stop the violence, and to worry about the consequences — the taxpayer costs, the broken neighborhoods, the normalization of prison as a natural part of some young mens’ lives, the revolving door, the reckoning — later.
And Illinois should likewise remind them that California has caught a break, with a historic decline in violent crime and, as a result, public openness to spending more resources on mental health treatment and drug rehab rather than new prison beds. This state’s lawmakers should examine the sentences they and their predecessors have passed into law and the opportunities for smart and safe alternative sentencing that they have previously missed. And they should take hold of the rare political moment to redesign the state’s criminal justice system so that it provides rehabilitation where possible, promotes safe reentry into society, spends public resources wisely and effectively, and still punishes and incapacitates criminals where appropriate.
Illinois should also remind them that crime, punishment and public safety need not divide liberals and conservatives into predictable and opposing camps, with liberals espousing rehabilitation and conservatives demanding more prisons and professing the deterrent value of long sentences. It is Chicago Democrats, after all, such as Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who are leading the current calls for tougher sentences, and it is the National Rifle Assn. that is pushing back. It is conservatives in so-called red states such as Texas who are demanding alternative sentencing and promoting smarter spending of criminal justice resources. In California, it has generally been left-leaning Democrats supporting alternative sentencing, other Democrats holding the line against early release, and Republicans railing against perceived leniency. But some liberals are seeing the value of locking up predators who wreak havoc on their communities, and some conservatives have recognized the wisdom in curbing recidivism. Lawmakers have a chance to back out of their traditional partisan corners and embrace opportunities for pragmatic, effective and cost-saving reform.
And ultimately, the example of Illinois should teach lawmakers here the futility of merely pushing the state to a different spot on the same circular road. We need not be fated to 30-year cycles of locking people up and letting them out, depending on the prevailing political or philosophical fashions or even on the ebb and flow of crime.
Society now has at its disposal new tools, new data, longer-term studies to better predict which approaches work and which ones fail. The science of criminology is not perfect and provides no pat answers, but over the decades it has produced a body of evidence and knowledge. It is that evidence and knowledge that should, as much as possible, guide lawmakers in their decision-making, about the role of prison in the criminal justice system rather than ideology or political expediency. In the end, their task should be to get California off the endless road altogether and instead embrace smarter criminal justice policies — punishment and programs that are sufficiently effective and reliable to withstand the fear-based political pressure that is inevitable during periods of rising crime.