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SPRINGFIELD — The final report from a state commission on criminal justice reform recommends measures that could give judges more discretion in sentencing decisions and expand services for inmates before they return to the community.

The Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform completed its 2015 directive from Gov. Bruce Rauner last week to produce recommendations to reduce the state's prison population by 25 percent by 2025. An initial report with 14 recommendations was released in December 2015, followed by the final draft with an additional 13 proposals.

Elizabeth Robb, the former chief judge of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit that includes McLean, Livingston, Woodford and Logan counties, served on the 29-member panel that reviewed that state's current practices for sentencing, supervising defendants and using alternatives to incarceration. 

The 94-page report represents a philosophical shift "as far as focusing more on rehabilitation, treatment and services for people in prison to better prepare them for release into the community," said Robb, who retired in 2014.

Recognizing that Illinois' prison population has grown from less than 10,000 to about 49,000 in four decades, the commission looked at all stages of the criminal justice process that impact whether a person goes to prison, how long they stay and what steps can be taken to keep them from joining the 50 percent who return to state custody within three years.

Recommendations that sentences for all felonies other than Class 4 be lowered and judges provided with more discretion in sentencing would safely reduce the prison population, according to the report. 

Flexibility in the courtroom allows a judge who has access to a defendant's personal and criminal history to more accurately determine a sentence that includes needed services, said Robb.

Under a sentencing reform measure, judges would have the discretion to place a person on probation for residential burglary, a subsequent Class 2 or greater felony and Class X drug offenses — all charges that currently carry mandatory prison sentences.

A drug law that disproportionately affects black offenders accused of selling drugs within 1,000 feet of so-called protected areas should be changed to require prosecutors to establish a connection between the crime and the area before that offense can be increased by one felony class, according to the commission. The boundaries of protected areas that include schools, parks and churches would be reduced to 500 feet and public housing would be removed as a drug-free zone.

Robb supports a recommendation to expand credit for rehabilitative programming to all inmates, a move that would increase the number of prisoners eligible for credit on their sentences.

"If we are just warehousing people, their behavior won't change. There's a belief that if inmates know there are things they can do to reduce their sentences, they are more likely to be involved in those programs," said Robb.

Panel member David Olson, criminal justice professor and co-director of the Center for Criminal Justice Research, Policy and Practice at Loyola University, was in Bloomington last week for a meeting of the McLean County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, part of a commission recommendation to encourage more counties to form similar local groups to monitor jail usage and the effectiveness of the justice system.

"The decisions on who goes to jail are made locally so there's a need to get people engaged in an educated, nonpartisan discussion of what's going on," said Olson.

With the commission's report on Rauner's desk, implementing many of the reform measures will depend upon new legislation being introduced to amend current laws. A new requirement that inmates leave prison with identification cards is one of the bipartisan panel's recommendations recently passed by lawmakers.   

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Follow Edith Brady-Lunny on Twitter: @pg_blunny

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McLean County Courts Reporter

McLean County courts reporter for The Pantagraph.

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