Your NPR news source

Expert: Illinois Experienced Biggest Drop In Prison Population Since 1970s

An expert who tracks prison population data says he predicts the number of people incarcerated in Illinois will keep falling.

SHARE Expert: Illinois Experienced Biggest Drop In Prison Population Since 1970s
Stateville Correctional Center

Stateville Correctional Center for men in Crest Hill, Illinois.

Wikipedia Commons

Illinois’ prison population dropped a whopping 16 percent in the last five years, a dramatic decrease caused by criminal justice reforms, says a noted professor of criminology.

The current population stands at 41,000, down from nearly 49,000 in 2013, according to David Olson, co-director of the Center for Criminal Justice Research, Policy, and Practice at Loyola University. He says the state’s prison population saw its biggest decrease after 2015, when it fell a dramatic 13 percent.

“The drop that we’ve seen in the last couple years — just to put it in perspective — has been the largest decrease that we’ve seen in Illinois since the late 1960s, early 1970s,” he says.

Olson, who is on a state task force that’s searching for ways to reduce the prison population by 25 percent by 2025, talked to WBEZ’s Lisa Labuz about why the decline is happening and what he thinks will happen in the future.

1. Policing reforms are partly responsible for decline

David Olson: The things that drive the prison population are the admissions to prison and how long people stay. And we’ve seen a dramatic drop in the number of people admitted to prison in Illinois over the last five or six years. Some of that is a result of changing police strategy and police tactics — in terms of who they’re arresting and what specific crimes they’re focusing on in terms of enforcement. But some of it also reflects changes in sentencing practice that we see across the courts in Illinois.

2. Felons present ‘difficult decisions’

Olson: I think reducing the number of people in prison for drug law violations and minor property offenses is important, and [keeping them in prison] really doesn’t serve a lot of the public safety goals that we need to focus on.

But the difficult decisions have to be made about what do we do with people who are charged with serious crimes, go to prison, and at a certain point, don’t pose that great of a public safety risk. We have to determine at what point are we comfortable with having them released from prison.

3. The prison population will continue to drop

Olson: I think it will [continue to decline]. Most of these decreases have been the result of changes in the decisions by practitioners at the local level of government. It really isn’t because of any changes to state law. The governor’s Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform came up with a variety of changes to policy and practice that could reduce the prison population. Many of those have only been in practice since January of this year.

Once those policy reforms are implemented and begin to take effect, we will see a continued decrease in the prison population, primarily because we’ll see some people in prison serving shorter amounts of time, because they earned reductions in their sentences as a result of participating in treatment programs and things like that.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity by Arionne Nettles. Click the “play” button to hear the full segment.

The Latest
It’s election day, and hundreds of teens are serving as election judges. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments today in a case that could impact more than one million student people in Illinois with college debt. Local groups are stepping up to provide shelter for asylum seekers arriving in Chicago.