11/24/2010 11:17 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

No Room at the Inn

Today's Chicago Tribune reports that the Illinois prison system is bursting at the seams with a record high of nearly 49,000 inmates, some 3,000 more than just a year ago. This increase, combined with Illinois's multibillion-dollar budget crisis, has led to dangerous overcrowding, and is a recipe for riots and other disasters. Administrators are doubling up every available cell -- as many as four inmates are bunked in cells intended for two handicapped prisoners. Corrections officials, rightly concerned about their ability to maintain order, are being asked to do more with less. Vendors who haven't been paid in months aren't willing to extend credit any more, either. It's a mess.

Governor Quinn was attacked for awarding meritorious good time and some early releases in his recent campaign, which leaves him unlikely to try an early release program again. The irony is that most of the inmates of the state prisons are there for nonviolent drug-related offenses. As I have written before, it is time to get smart on crime, not just tough. And it is time to legalize drugs and recognize that we cannot in either human or economic terms win this "war" on drugs, we must treat the illness of addiction as the public health problem that it is.

We cannot simply ignore the problem, far too many of our citizens who have not committed violent crimes are in prison, where they are in danger - not just physical, but psychological - as we have given up on any attempts at rehabilitation, and when released they are dangerous to us, because they come out of prison with no skills, no job prospects and little hope that this state of affairs can be rectified, even after a long period of law abiding behavior, since we have almost no way to clear the slate. The collateral consequences of a youthful mistake travel with an individual long after the fact. In most states, these mistakes dog them for their entire lives.

Every politician speaks of the importance of reducing crime, but the things that would do that -- things like spending money on public health and education and after school programs, parenting classes, and day care for low-income people so they can work -- could make them sound too "liberal", a word that has become, inexplicably, a bad word.

If we are serious as a nation about crime reduction, and solving our budget woes, we have to spend our limited resources in a more intelligent way, look at our policies with a longer view, and embrace our brothers and sisters who are in trouble, not give up on them. But I have some doubts about our seriousness.