My 2016 Wish List: 3 Ways to Improve Illinois' Criminal Justice System

Fairness and safety are the cornerstones of criminal justice, and Illinois saw several important reform victories in 2015. For one, a new law requires that law-enforcement agencies that make use of body cameras must use them when responding to calls (but turn them off when interviewing crime victims, witnesses or informants). Politicians also signed on to create a pilot program in Cook County to ensure that certain indigent jail residents charged with property offenses don't languish in jail because they can't afford bail.

But if Illinois wants to ensure public safety while addressing problems such as ex-offenders' difficulty re-entering the workforce and overcrowding in jails and prisons, there's plenty of room left to improve.

1) Sealing reform - Many ex-offenders in Illinois are barred from entering their chosen professions - or simply from securing well-paying jobs - after serving their time. Without hope for a brighter future, it's not hard to see why half of ex-offenders end up back behind bars within three years. Record sealing gives reformed ex-offenders a chance at re-entering the workforce in a meaningful way. One of the main barriers to good work that ex-offenders face is the scarlet letter a criminal record leaves on a job application, even after an ex-offender has served his or her time. In 2013, Illinois passed a law allowing ex-offenders to petition to have their records sealed, meaning only law enforcement and certain types of employers, such as schools, can see an ex-offender's criminal record. But a person is only eligible for sealing after waiting three to four years from the end of his or her sentence, and not all ex-offenders are eligible. Illinois can break the cycle of crime and truly give ex-offenders a second chance by broadening sealing and eliminating wait times altogether.

2) Decriminalization - Violent crime is down, and while the state's prison population has dropped slightly, it's still far too high. Illinois' largest category of offenses is drug crimes - 18.9 percent of the state's incarcerated prisoners are serving time for violations of either the Controlled Substance Act or the Cannabis Control Act, according to research from the Illinois Department of Corrections. In 2012, Chicago City Council voted to move to civil instead of criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

Nearly three years later, the rest of the state almost followed suit. The Illinois General Assembly passed a bill sponsored by state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, in spring 2015 that would have punished possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana with a fine of $100 to $200, and would have lowered penalties for possession of between 30 and 500 grams of marijuana. That bill fizzled out, but Cassidy has reintroduced a revised version she hopes will earn the governor's signature and become law. This version of the bill would make possession of up to 10 grams punishable by a fine - that means people caught with minor amounts of marijuana will be ticketed, not needlessly sent to jail, at great cost-savings to the state residents who pay for prisons and jails.

Moving to civil from criminal penalties means the state won't continue devoting resources to keeping a number of nonviolent offenders behind bars, and will go a long way toward achieving Gov. Bruce Rauner's goal of reducing the state's prison population by 25 percent come 2025.

3) Bail reform - It's time to make "innocent until proven guilty" mean something. Most inmates in local jails haven't been found guilty of any crimes - 90 percent of inmates in the Cook County Department of Corrections are awaiting trial. Others are there because they can't afford to pay their bail. This type of system results in absurdities such as a pregnant 30-year-old in jail for 135 days for stealing two plums and three candy bars, according to information released by the Cook County Sheriff. Cara Smith, Chief Strategy Officer at the Cook County Jail, said this woman, to whom she referred as M.H., was still in jail for this offense when M.H. gave birth to a baby girl she named Miracle. M.H.'s stay in the jail cost taxpayers $19,305.

Instituting a more reasonable system means taxpayers can avoid paying to lock up someone who doesn't pose a safety risk pre-trial, and who likely shouldn't have to experience exposure to jail in the first place. While it's important to keep dangerous criminals off the streets, a person's freedom before he or she has been convicted of a crime shouldn't depend on how much money he or she has. Alternatives to money bail already exist: A court notification program in Multnomah County, Oregon, reduced failure-to-appear rates by 45 percent in two years. In Washington, D.C., defendants can't be held in jail because they don't have the ability to pay bail - yet 88 percent of all arrestees appear for their court hearings.