THE BLOG
04/10/2015 05:21 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2015

When the Punishment No Longer Fits the Crime: Cook County and Illinois Seeking Solutions to Broken Criminal-justice System

Bad guys aren't the only ones who go to jail.

One in 99 adults are living behind bars in the U.S. This marks the highest rate of imprisonment in American history, according to the Pew Center on States.

Prison overcrowding is an issue across the country, and Illinois is no different.

Its state prisons are operating at 150 percent capacity, with a system designed to hold a maximum of 32,075 prisoners housing 48,653 inmates. Illinois' prison population has grown 700 percent over the last 40 years.

Overcrowding isn't a result of increasing criminality (Chicago ended 2014 with crime and murder rates at record lows; violent crime is also down statewide, according to the FBI) -- it's symptomatic of basic flaws in the criminal-justice system, one of which is unjust incarceration.

Cara Smith, the executive director of the Cook County Jail, explains unjust incarceration as the arrest and confinement of people who commit victimless crimes, such as trespassing and retail theft.

What does this look like? A pregnant 30-year-old in jail for 135 days for stealing two plums and three candy bars. Smith said this woman, who she referred to as M.H., was still in jail for this offense when she gave birth to a baby girl she named "Miracle" on Veteran's Day.

Smith said at the time the jail had about 600 inmates who were there for criminal trespassing or retail theft for under $300.

"I would bet for all 600 of these people, whether you give them a $10 bond or a million dollar bond, they won't be able to bond out," Smith said.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart released a case study of another instance of unjust incarceration, this time a homeless 51-year-old woman referred to as T.Y. who was arrested for criminal trespassing at Rush Hospital. She sat in jail for 38 days. T.Y.'s case study indicated that, at her last court date, the judge ordered a "behavioral clinical exam" to determine her psychological fitness to stand trial.

Even if the human side of these stories doesn't prove sympathetic, the financial impact might: These two cases cost taxpayers $24,739.

Offenders are being locked away -- sometimes for months -- for petty crimes, often for what Smith referred to as "crimes of survival." Those who commit repeat offenses are not being rehabilitated; they are simply being kept at bay under lock and key.

It's a system that's not working -- more than half of Illinois' prisoners end up incarcerated again within three years of release -- but the tendency to leap too quickly to new solutions is one that politicians should resist.

"Before we can decide what we need to do to make a change, we have to expose who's in custody," Smith said. "Without that information, the public is under the misapprehension that people are in custody because they are bad guys. By exposing these case studies, I think the rest of the system that put people in custody should feel uncomfortable about their policies."

There's movement at the state level to seek solutions to Illinois' broken criminal-justice system as well. As one of his earliest acts in office, Gov. Bruce Rauner issued an executive order creating the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform. The commission includes prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and other experts, all tasked with reviewing sentencing structure and practices, community supervision and the use of alternatives to incarceration, with the goal of finding solutions to the ineffective and expensive system.

Rauner said his goal is to reduce the prison population 25 percent by 2025.

Criminal-justice reform is necessary to remedy a system that is failing on moral and fiscal levels. Today's system doesn't rehabilitate inmates and fails to address the underlying causes driving petty crimes. This doesn't just have ethical consequences -- it also eats away at state budgets.

Illinois' $1.3 billion prison budget was on track to run out at the end of April, and was only saved when the legislature passed supplemental budget appropriations at the eleventh hour.

While structural changes should come only after officials thoroughly assess the system, a simple way to start making sure people like T.Y. and M.H. don't languish in jail is to move cases through the system more efficiently. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that Sheriff Dart is working on legislation aimed at moving shoplifting and trespassing cases through the system within a month; judges would also be able to "release the defendants on a non-cash bond or electronic monitoring until their trials."

Other possibilities include imposing tickets and fines for low-level offenses instead of making arrests. Illinois could consider joining 17 states and Washington, D.C., which have already decriminalized marijuana. An Illinois state representative has proposed a new bill that would punish marijuana possession under 30 grams with a fine of $100, and would lower penalties for possession of over 30 grams but less than 500.