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posted: 7/15/2014 1:01 AM

Editorial: Time for new thinking on prison reform

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

A special legislative panel on criminal justice in Illinois is staring at a full plate of dilemmas even before it holds its first meeting today in Chicago.

The Joint Criminal Justice Reform Committee, whose 10 members include, from the suburbs, Michael Noland, an Elgin Democrat and chairman on the Senate side; Republican Sen. Matt Murphy of Palatine; and Republican Rep. Dennis M. Reboletti of Elmhurst -- was the legislature's response to a plea from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for longer prison sentences for people convicted of gun crimes. But its charter ended up being loaded with practically every potential ill facing the Illinois criminal justice system. Not only is the body to study "the impact of the current sentencing structure," it also is directed to ensure that all races and minority groups are treated fairly by the system and to "develop solutions to address the issues that exist within the system."

So, the panel's first task may be to find a focus narrow enough to be examined, addressed and contained in a report due to the legislature by Dec. 1. And if it sticks to the question that led to creation of the committee in the first place -- is increasing the length of prison sentences an effective deterrent against gun crime? -- it can provide a valuable service. Indeed, providing direction on the relationship between gun crimes and prison sentencing for gun crimes may point to a template for dealing with a variety of crimes, not just at the state level but also at the level of local law enforcement.

Are longer sentences for drug crimes, for example, decreasing the incidence of drug crime or just making prisons and jails more crowded? What financial and policy strategies can prisons -- and by extension local jails -- implement in order to function effectively during a time of declining resources? To what degree are prisons and local jails challenged by the practices of other state agencies?

Punctuating this latter point is an Associated Press story this week describing how cuts in state mental health services are resulting in a huge influx of inmates in local jails, which have become the housing of last resort for individuals who previously would have been managed through state mental health agencies.

The joint state legislative panel isn't going to have an answer for localized criminal justice complaints, of course, but if it is courageous, objective and creative in its thinking -- in other words, if it eschews the easy and common plea for more money -- it can develop actions that affect not only state corrections policy but also local responses to crime and criminal suspects.

In this sense, the assignment facing the Joint Criminal Justice Reform Committee is not unlike that facing the state on so many other levels. Find a solution to a problem that is driven by data, not politics, and develop strategies that go beyond decrying the loss of money or simply prescribing more.

It's a tall order, but really the only one with practical value.

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