11/08/2013 12:30 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

A Victory for Safe, Smart and Cost-Effective Criminal Justice Law and Policy

The Illinois House has adjourned without voting on pending legislation that would increase mandatory-minimum prison sentences for illegal gun possession.

This is a victory for safe, smart, cost-effective criminal justice law and policy.

The John Howard Association (JHA) would like to thank all of the legislators, advocates, and ordinary citizens that helped fight this bill. From the beginning, Representative Elaine Nekrtiz's tough questions about the costs and ineffectiveness of mandatory minimums drove this process. The leadership of the Quinn administration and Illinois Legislative Black Caucus was instrumental. In particular, Representatives Ken Dunkin, Art Turner, Monique Davis, Senator Kwame Raoul, and many others reminded everyone that we cannot simply incarcerate our way out of Chicago's gun violence.

What Illinois now needs is comprehensive criminal justice reform. This must begin with taking a hard and sober look at our overcrowded and underresourced prison system. We spend $1.3 billion on the Illinois Department of Corrections, but only two percent of that money goes to rehabilitative, educational, and vocational programs. We house 49,000 prisoners in a system designed for 32,000. Our Parole system has even less resources than the prisons. Parole officers frequently have caseloads of 100 parolees, with no rehabilitative resources to provide them with.

For more than 110 years, JHA has always argued that prison must play a role in our criminal justice system, but that role should be limited and based upon a clear understanding of what prisons can and cannot do. The reality is that the deeper we send a person into the justice system, the more we trade the possibility of the long-term benefit of rehabilitation for the short-term effect of incapacitation. This is an important fact about prisons, which is often lost when it comes to making criminal justice law and policy. There is nothing magical about a prison cell. It can restrain a person who poses a violent risk to public safety, but it is extremely expensive and difficult to try to make it do anything else.

The criminal justice system cannot solve the epidemic of gun violence. It can only respond to it. Alongside criminal justice reform, which must include safe and cost-effective prison reduction, Illinois' most vulnerable and violent communities need investment.

Illinois was on the verge of spending up to $1 billion on mandatory minimum sentence enhancements for illegal gun possession, despite the fact that there was never any credible evidence that these dollars and changes in the law would deter crime. Going forward, Illinois should never consider increasing its use of prison without first making necessary investments in people lives and the communities they live in. That's the only way Illinois will solve the problem of gun violence.

As Illinois' only non-partisan prison watchdog, JHA looks forward to working with all stakeholders, including the supporters of mandatory minimums, to reform Illinois' justice system and create safer communities for everyone.