Rehabilitation, Restitution Undermined by Illinois' Supersized Criminal-Justice System

Too often, corrections programs focus solely on locking up offenders and throwing away the key ... until their sentences are completed, at which point they are expected to become productive members of society.

This model serves no one: not the taxpayers who foot the bill for jails and prisons, not the people who serve time behind bars, and not the victims of crime and the public.

An ideal corrections program focuses first on keeping the public safe. Public safety depends on crime prevention, which means that an effective corrections program is one that isn't simply punitive, but is transformative, aimed at stopping the cycle of crime in which the same people end up behind bars again and again.

Unfortunately, Illinois lags behind other states in its efforts to curb recidivism through offender rehabilitation, and the results are sobering: Offenders who serve time in Illinois prisons have a nearly 50 percent chance of returning within three years.

By not implementing enough effective offender-rehabilitation programs, the state jeopardizes public safety.

Illinois should look to successful programs in other states for guidance on recidivism prevention. One way to rehabilitate inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes - those who are serving time for offenses such as burglary, fraud and drug crimes, and make up 50 percent of all inmates in the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections, or IDOC - can be seen in an impressive program in the Lone Star state.

In Texas, the Bridges to Life restorative-justice program has been in operation since 1998. Under programs like Bridges to Life, if the person found guilty of a nonviolent property crime and the victim of that crime agree, the two parties enter mediation to work out terms that allow the guilty party to repay the victim in lieu of serving jail time. Victims, who often take a back seat in the design of punishment-focused criminal-justice policies, report greater levels of satisfaction under such restorative-justice programs, according to research from Right on Crime.

This one reform - establishing a restorative-justice pilot program in Illinois - could save an estimated $780,500 in one year. Given that IDOC spending is at an all-time high ($1.4 billion in fiscal year 2015) the state must seize every such reasonable opportunity to reduce its prison costs.

Illinois' prison population has increased by 330 percent since the 1970s. If the state is to meet Gov. Bruce Rauner's goal of reducing its prison population by 25 percent by 2025, politicians need to get serious about embracing changes that address the state's ever-growing incarceration problem. Restorative justice and other programs are one way to accomplish this goal, while at the same time ensuring that Illinois' criminal-justice system is focused more on restitution and rehabilitation than on punishment alone.