Recently, the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board took a swipe at members of the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (COGFA) claiming that because they voted against the Governor’s plan to close Dwight Correctional Center and other Department of Corrections (DOC) facilities, the lawmakers are “part of Illinois’ problem”.
What the editorial board seems to imply is that any budget cuts are good, regardless of the long-term consequences the cuts could bring. This myopic and short-term thinking is the root of Illinois’ problem, not lawmakers who try to plan for the future by understanding the big picture. After all, if the Tribune Editorial Board’s only litmus test for budget cuts is that the State spends less money in 2013, we could eliminate road maintenance and construction, snow plowing, and State Police operations and save millions. Yet, nobody would propose these cuts because these are principal responsibilities of state government and would cost taxpayers more over the long-term. Similarly, if the State shirks one of its most fundamental responsibilities of operating an effective criminal justice system, taxpayers will pay dearly in the future with increased costs for social programs, local police protection, and jail operations.
The Illinois General Assembly passes more than 300 new laws every year. Additionally, lawmakers have taken discretion away from judges by passing mandatory sentencing laws. The ramifications of these actions include an overcrowded prison system that is operating at 140% capacity. How effective can a prison system be at reforming criminal behavior when it is operating at 140% capacity? It is probably as effective as a school system would be at educating children if it were operating at 140% capacity.
Rep. Raymond Poe states that the Governor has no long-term plan for prisons. This is evident by the fact that just 9 months ago, the Governor proposed closing Logan Prison, citing the $8.3 million in capital improvements that is needed at the facility. Now, the Governor’s plan is to make the Logan facility an all female prison and close the Dwight facility and states that the conversion will only cost $540,000, failing to account for the $8.3 million needed for capital improvements. The fact is that the savings being touted by the Governor will not materialize. Unfortunately, DOC is constantly responding and reacting to political winds as they swirl around the Capitol and to politicians who use State facilities as pawns in their budget debates, instead of creating a long-term plan for Illinois’ prison system. Any actions taken without this sort of plan being in place will only aggravate an already precarious situation.
Rep. Patricia Bellock, Rep. Raymond Poe, Sen. Michael Frerichs, and most of the other members of COGFA understand that the Governor’s latest plan is a bad idea that will cost the taxpayers more in the long run. By closing the transition centers, prisoners being released into society will not be given the opportunity to obtain the job training and life skills that will help them become productive and self-sufficient members of society. Operating a prison system at 140% capacity reduces the effectiveness of the reform, rehabilitation, and education programs. Closing these facilities may save the taxpayers money next year, but it would surely lead to increased recidivism rates and social welfare expenses that will cost us more in the future.
It is time for lawmakers to start looking beyond next year’s budget or the next election cycle and begin considering the long-term consequences and costs of their actions. Most members of COGFA have figured this out and are insisting their colleagues and the Governor consider the consequences of legislative proposals over the long-term. This represents a change to the way Springfield has operated in the past and the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board should encourage this change, not take swipes at those leaders who are implementing it.