Rauner Criminal Justice Reform Plan Draws Praise, Advice

Governor Bruce Rauner on Wednesday took his first step to reform Illinois' criminal justice system by proposing a new commission, a plan that drew bi-partisan praise, but not one without potential pitfalls.

Rauner signed Executive Order 15-14 at the Sangamon County Courthouse today, which establishes the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform.

The commission, members to which were not named in the governor's announcement, will examine the current criminal justice system and sentencing structure to develop comprehensive and evidence-based strategies to improve public safety, according to Rauner.

The panel will "analyze all aspects of the current system from the initial arrest to re-entry into the community," according to Rauner's press statement.

Some areas the commission will specifically examine are ensuring there is uniformity in sentencing structure, sentencing practices, community supervision and the use of alternatives to prison with the aim of cutting the Illinois prison population by 25% over 10 years.

"Illinois is in desperate need of criminal justice reform. Our prisons are overcapacity and too many offenders are returning to prison," Rauner said at a press conference in Springfield. "We need to take a comprehensive, holistic approach to our justice system."

The governor noted that the Department of Corrections is operating at more than 150 percent of the inmate capacity, which "threatens the safety of inmates and staff" and that the recidivism rate in Illinois hovers around 50 percent.

Rauner's executive order drew bi-partisan praise from a top House Democrat, Deputy Majority Leader Lou Lang (D-Skokie) who took to Twitter to express his support.

"I applaud @GovRauner's initiative on #IL criminal justice reform. It's time for a comprehensive overhaul," Lang tweeted.

A top criminal justice advocacy group, Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, applauded the Governor's action.

"Any Illinois turnaround must include criminal justice reform, and I congratulate Governor Rauner making it a priority within his first 100 days of taking office," said TASC president & C.E.O. Pamela Rodriguez.

An Illinois addiction health care advocate also welcomed the governor's announcement, but urged Rauner's new panel to keep its sights focused on "addiction" policy.

"Governor Rauner's launch of the Illinois criminal justice reform commission is good news, but it is important to recognize the key role of substance abuse prevention and treatment as well as mental health services in any reform," said Illinois Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Association Vice President of Substance Abuse Policy Eric Foster.

Rauner's executive order comes on the heels of the renewal of the Illinois House and Senate Joint Criminal Justice Reform Committee chaired by State Rep. Mike Zalewski (D-Riverside) and State Senator Mike Noland (D-Elgin). The legislative panel held a half dozen exhaustive hearings last year and produced its own report in December offering recommended changes to the Illinois criminal justice system, including decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana and lessening of some prison sentences.

As both the Rauner commission and the revived legislative committee move forward, Rodriguez is urging both to focus on "full-scale diversion programs."

"As criminal justice reforms are being crafted via both the Governor's office and the General Assembly, they must embed both the No Entry principle and the reentry principle -- that that effective, full-scale diversion programs are necessary, providing a pathway to recovery and restored citizenship rather than a return to prison," Rodriguez said. "What's required to implement reform is leadership. We look forward to working with Representative Zalewski, Senator Noland, the Governor's new criminal justice commission, and other leaders to make this happen."

The big political challenge will be for both panels to work simultaneously but at different speeds without undermining each other.

Zalewski has made clear that he wants to pass reforms during the spring session of the General Assembly. Rauner, however, wants his bi-partisan panel to review some of the same ground that the Zalewski-Noland committee has already plowed and to issue a preliminary report on July 1 and a final report at the end of December, after the legislature has adjourned.

One question is will Zalewski and Noland's GOP legislative colleagues be able to finesse the two competing timetables. Another question is whether Rauner himself will be to finesse the agenda of the majority Democrats with his own.

Can those potential pitfalls be avoided?

We'll see.