For the past two years, Professor Andrew Leipold has served on the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform. Comprised of more than two dozen criminal justice practitioners, lawmakers, and policymakers, the Commission was charged with developing comprehensive, evidence-based strategies to meet the goal of reducing Illinois’ prison population 25 percent by 2025.
The Commission issued their final report in December of 2016, which outlined 27 reforms to safely minimize the state's overreliance on incarceration. We sat down with Professor Leipold to talk about his role on the Commission and his perspective on the recommendations that were developed.
How did you come to be selected for Governor Rauner's Commission?
The chair of the commission, Rodger Heaton, is a guy I've known for many, many years and we've worked together on a number of other legal projects. He's a good friend and a first rate lawyer, and so when he asked, I said yes.
Did you serve a particular role during your time on the Commission?
The reason Rodger was interested in having me involved was that he needed a writer for the drafting of the actual report - it's quite common for an academic to take on this role.
One of the first recommendations in the report is to increase rehabilitative services and treatment capacity in high-need communities. Given the current state budget situation and the significant cuts to social programs that have already taken place in the past two years, how likely is it that reforms like this one will be enacted?
It is, in some ways, the most important reform we recommended, because you can't reduce the prison population safely and permanently by letting people out and then simply doing nothing. The recidivism rate in Illinois is about 50%, and you can't stop cycling people through the prison system with hope alone. We're going to be spending money one way or another, so the idea was let's try spending money on something that works well.
To the extent there is investment in the things that we know are correlated to criminal behavior, we want to put those in high need areas, where it can do the most good, because we don't have unlimited resources.
In terms of political predictions, I don't have one. The governor encouraged us to be bold - figure out what needs to be done and let the political branches worry about the political stuff.
We just spoke about one of the likely more challenging reforms to enact, but which of the recommended reforms do you anticipate will be adopted and enacted?
There seemed to be a lot of agreement that something needs to be done about drug sentencing. We recommended that all felony drug offenses be lowered one classification level. I don't know that that specific recommendation will be adopted, but the idea that we can choke off demand by punishing people harder has not been very effective. My hope is that reforms in this area (such as the one we recommended) will stop the creep of drug crimes getting more and more serious, as it becomes more obvious that we are not making much of a dent in demand.
Of the recommended reforms, are there any that you personally feel will have the most long-term impact?
Other than what we've talked about, I would be in favor of stopping automatic sentence enhancements. Whenever we have mandatory minimums, it ends up catching a modest number of people who we don't really think ought to be treated as harshly. Judges are good at making individualized determinations, and I'm in favor of letting them do more of that. It comes at a cost, because as long as people are making decisions there are going to be some that are good, and some that are not as good, but I don't believe in making things automatic on something this important and life-changing for people. I think we can do better.
Is there anything else that you would have liked to have seen incorporated into the recommendations that did not make the cut?
At the very end of the report, we talked about some of the things we didn't get to. The good news and the bad news about the Commission is that the governor gave us a very ambitious task. That was a daunting challenge, but I think it was the right approach, because it channeled us. We had to stay focused on the goal and recognize that criminal justice reform is not a problem you solve, it involves ongoing management. There are a lot of things that I would have liked to have seen done differently about the Illinois criminal justice system, but, I think we did a good job of staying focused on our task of reducing the prison population.