SPRINGFIELD — During his campaign for governor, J.B. Pritzker said he heard countless stories of how Illinois' broken criminal justice system has created hardships and heartbreak for those caught in a cycle of detention, poverty and dead end roads without opportunity.
As he prepares to take over the reins of the governor's office, Pritzker is moving forward with plans for the Office of Criminal Justice Reform and Economic Opportunity, an agency that will coordinate new and existing efforts to address what's wrong, and strengthen what's right, with the way Illinois handles criminal justice.
The office will focus "on making sure the services people need are being delivered and preventing people from entering the system in the first place," said Pritzker's press secretary, Jordan Abudayyeh.
The recently named Restorative Justice and Safe Communities Committee, a panel of 42 leaders from state and local government, private foundations, law enforcement and the criminal justice field, will advise Pritzker's administration on priorities for criminal justice reform and best practices to achieve those goals.
Lieutenant Governor-elect Juliana Stratton will lead the effort to establish an office for criminal justice reform. In a statement announcing the working group, Straton said, "I know we can achieve meaningful, lasting progress and opportunity and justice that we all believe in — but only if we act together."
Deanne Benos, former assistant director of the Department of Corrections and co-founder of the Women's Justice Initiative and a member of the reform committee, supports the concept of extending changes in the criminal justice system to include assistance for ex-offenders.
"What's really promising is the new vision this could create and opportunities to address issues in a more comprehensive manner. This moves us away from silo justice," said Benos.
Communities across the state share similar struggles with limited resources to deal with the special needs of mentally ill and female offenders, gun violence and other crime issues, said Benos. Bringing stakeholders together "is a more effective and holistic way of addressing the things all communities care about," she said.
Advocates for reforms in how juveniles fare in Illinois' court system are hopeful the new office will include juvenile justice on its agenda. Elizabeth Clark, president of Juvenile Justice Initiative (JJI), said Illinois has made significant progress in reforming juvenile justice but more work needs to be done.
"I think this is a hopeful moment as we look at criminal justice reform on a broader basis," said Clark.
A justice system that's fair for both minors and adults shares the important principles of being "proportionate and individualized" for each individual, said Clark.
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Among the reforms supported by JJI are an end to the automatic transfer of youths 16 or older for certain offenses, a ban on detention of children under 13 and raising the age of juvenile court from 17 to 21 for all offenders.
Illinois, like many states and the federal government, has seen bipartisan support for criminal justice reform. Last week, the Senate passed new federal legislation hailed as sweeping reform aimed at giving judges more discretion in sentencing some drug offenders and boosting prisoner rehabilitation efforts.
Measures to divert people from incarceration equate to cost savings as prison populations are reduced, according to views now endorsed by conservatives and liberal advocacy groups.
The 2017 recommendations from Gov. Bruce Rauner's Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reforms include several reductions in sentence classifications and other measures that could lower the number of people entering state prisons. So far, nine of the 25 recommendations have been adopted through changes in policy or state law and work has begun to implement nine other recommendations.
The more controversial proposals, lowering sentences for felonies and drug crimes and raising the threshold for shoplifting to be considered a felony, have not been taken up lawmakers. According to an analysis by the Sentencing Policy Advisory Commission, 5,634 inmates were serving time in state facilities in 2018 on drug crimes covered by the sentencing proposal.
Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association, said the effectiveness of the measures adopted so far, including provisions that inmates leaving prison receive documentation of their identity and awarding programming credits for repeat offenders, has yet to be determined. Without data, the effectiveness cannot be tracked, said the leader of the Chicago-based prison monitoring group.
The merger of reform with opportunity as the focus of the new office is a source of optimism for Vollen-Katz.
"Let's talk about reducing justice system contact entirely," she said, adding neighborhoods that lack resources for crime prevention and job opportunities need to be part of the reform conversation.
"Criminal justice reform is a topic of national conversation. I think there's momentum now. We're hoping we're entering a new era," said Vollen-Katz.