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Maybe there are some upsides to going broke.
The governor didn’t make any arguments questioning the justice of keeping maximum-security inmates at Tamms in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. Nor did he talk about why Illinois has been a national leader in prison population growth. He didn’t suggest saving even more money by keeping nonviolent offenders out of prison in the first place.
Quinn merely uttered one quick sentence deep in his budget address that got right to the issue at hand: “The corrections department will close two prisons—Tamms and Dwight.” Corrections officials estimate the savings at $64 million a year.
Tamms got most of the headlines. Opened 14 years ago in response to the tough-on-crime politics of the 1980s and '90s, Tamms was supposed to house the most dangerous and problematic inmates in the system—on a temporary basis. But it became a long-term depository for the deeply troubled and defiant, with some inmates remaining in solitary confinement for a decade or longer.
Ultimately, though, one cold truth couldn’t be denied or mitigated: it costs taxpayers nearly $62,000 a year to incarcerate each inmate at Tamms. That’s nearly three times the state average of $21,000.
Here's another way of looking at it: the state’s gaping financial problems have finally made it easier for politicians to argue that locking up people from one community isn’t the most effective way to create a few jobs in another.
Still, Quinn’s proposal doesn’t get at the broader problems in the state prison system.
“We keep reshuffling things around here, but it never gets to the core of what facilities are we going to have, how to be smart on crime, or how to use our resources the best way we can,” says state rep Dennis Reboletti, a west-suburban Republican. He's a member of a corrections reform group made up of legislators from both parties and aides to the governor.
Reboletti says state prison facilities are already about 4,500 inmates over capacity. Shuttering Tamms and Dwight would send about 1,500 additional prisoners to other crowded facilities.
“The problem is that if you have substantial savings but you have a lawsuit over overcrowding, then you can get pushed into a federal consent decree like they have in California,” says Reboletti. “And then you start having concerns about institutional security. We want to make sure we’re putting our state employees in a safe environment, and we can’t stretch those resources even thinner.”
Worse, the state’s prison population has been inching upward for years. In fact, while diversion programs and drug law reforms have helped shrink the inmate totals in most large states, Illinois has been a national leader in prison population growth, including the biggest increase anywhere in 2010, according to a recent federal report.
Although corrections officials previously predicted a drop in the inmate population, it's grown from 44,669 in 2005 to 47,504 in 2010 to 48,380 last week. That's an increase of about 8 percent in seven years. Over the same period, the state corrections budget has grown about 20 percent, to $1.2 billion.
We’re not just talking about violent criminals, either. Since 2005, the portion of prisoners in for nonviolent offenses has remained constant—about 49 percent. That means more people have been incarcerated for offenses like DUIs, thefts, and residential burglaries.
On the upside, fewer prisoners are in on drug charges. On the downside, drug offenses still account for 20 percent of the inmates in Illinois prisons. Nearly 800 of these prisoners are there for marijuana-related offenses.
Reboletti says ideas have been floated in Springfield to create more alternative-sentencing programs for nonviolent offenders. But conversations about reforming state drug laws, starting with the penalties for marijuana possession, don’t have much momentum. “I’m not sure if those discussions will bear fruit in this legislative session,” he says.
No wonder that corrections officials expect the Illinois population to grow by at least 1 percent a year, according to their most recent annual report. “Generally forecasts take into consideration admissions data, recidivism rates, and average length of stay,” says Stacey Solano, a corrections department spokeswoman.
In other words, none of these factors are expected to change enough to reverse the long-term growth trend.
While Republicans and Democrats all say it's time for a close look at the system, they haven't moved beyond the talking phase. "As of yet we’re still in discussions," Reboletti says. "And nothing hard and fast has been discussed.”