- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 31, 2015

March 30, 2015

The (Champaign) News-Gazette

Crime and punishment

Can Illinois reduce the number of people in its prison without a threat to public safety?

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s 28-member commission to study criminal justice and sentence issues is beginning its work with a lofty goal - figuring out how to reduce the state’s prison population by 25 percent over the next 10 years.

But even that isn’t enough for some critics of the state’s criminal justice system. Jennifer Vollen-Katz, who’s with the Chicago-based John Howard Association, said her organization would “rather it be 50 percent in five years.”

Those interests are understandable. It has been a fact of life in Illinois for several decades that, even though new prisons have been built, there are more people in the state’s prisons than there is room to hold them. More than 45,000 inmates are being held in space designed for 33,000, and they cost taxpayers well over a $1 billion a year.

The presence of that distracting reality explains why Rauner’s commission members need to keep their eyes on the ball - the real challenge is policy, not prison population. Get the policy right, and the population problem can be safely reduced.

Most people already know how to reduce the prison population - just open the cell doors and let people go. That may sound ludicrous, but it’s happened time and again over the past 40 years in Illinois - with disastrous results. It most recently occurred during former Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration, when prison population pressures resulted in an ill-advised policy in which incoming inmates, some convicted of violent crimes, were released from prison soon after they arrived.

The commission is charged with conducting a broad-based examination of a wide variety of complicated issues and making recommendations for improving the status quo. It is composed of legislators, judges and prosecutors as well as representatives from the defense bar and experts on the problem posed by illegal drugs. University of Illinois law Professor Andrew Leipold is among the academics who is participating.

That broad-based expertise is necessary because prison problems are affected by a variety of factors, including family disintegration, shortcomings in public education, economic hardship, gang culture, mental illness and illegal drugs. Every social pathology one can imagine is bound up inextricably in the criminal justice system.

Convention wisdom these days is that our drug laws are too harsh and that too many drug offenders are being sentenced to prison for too long. There is merit to that assertion. But people need to remember that few criminal defendants are sentenced to state prison for possession of small amounts of illegal drugs intended for personal use or as a consequence of their first offense.

Mostly, prison inmates are repeat offenders or individuals who have been convicted of violent offense.

As prison populations have increased across the country, crime rates have decreased. Some contend that prison populations should fall as crime rates decrease.

But the more realistic view is that crime rates fall as prison population increases because those who are imprisoned would be committing more crimes if they were on the outside. The recidivism rates would appear to confirm that latter view.

The commission is scheduled to submit an initial report of its findings on July 1 and a final version by Dec. 31. If it comes up with good answers to challenging problems, legislators in 49 other states will be asking for copies.


March 27, 2015

The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan

Hire state fair manager, now

Whether it’s politics, delivering a punch line or solidly striking a golf ball, timing is everything.

The timing of Shannon Woodworth being fired as manager of the Du Quoin State Fair was curious.

Gov. Bruce Rauner had barely had time to solemnly swear to uphold the constitution and laws of the State of Illinois when it was announced Woodworth had been relieved of his duties. The firing might not have been the first official act of the Rauner governorship, but it was one of the first.

We didn’t understand the urgency then. We don’t understand it now.

Woodworth had only been director of the fair for one year. By all quantifiable standards, the 2014 fair had been a success. The upward trend in attendance continued with daily crowds ranging from 52,000 to 65,000, despite uncomfortable heat. The final attendance for the 2014 event was 340,000.

To date, no successor has been named for Woodworth.

The timing is becoming more than just curious, it is becoming critical.

The fair is just five months away. There is a lot of work to be done, and done quickly.

The Du Quoin State Fair might not be a big deal in Springfield or in major metropolitan areas. But, it remains a drawing card and an economic engine, albeit a temporary one, for Southern Illinois.

The biggest issue would seem to be signing grandstand acts . one of the fair’s primary draws. The fair’s Facebook page posted a promise on Nov. 9, 2014 to have its entertainment schedule completed earlier this year.

There is more to running a fair than booking a week’s worth of concerts. There are auto races, harness racing and hundreds of vendors to be secured. In addition, the state and the region would be well served with an aggressive fair manager that sought to better utilize the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds throughout the year.

And, while on the topic of appointments, we’re hoping the state finds a replacement for Ralph Hamilton, the site superintendent of Wayne Fitzgerrell State Park at Rend Lake. Hamilton retired Dec. 31.

Like the Du Quoin State Fair, Wayne Fitzgerrell and Rend Lake are important pieces of Southern Illinois’s economy. Wayne Fitzgerrell State Park, and Rend Lake Resort are considered jewels in the Illinois State Park system.

With a $5.1 million renovation plan ready to be bid at the resort and an overhaul of the sailboat harbor about to begin, it’s critical to have a site superintendent in place.

Another important position was filled earlier this month when Joe Nelson was appointed site superintendent at Ferne Clyffe State Park. Sources say the state is working to fill the Wayne Fitzgerrell vacancy.

Trying is not doing. The spots need to be filled.


March 25, 2015

(Peoria) Journal Star

Dishonest budget, dire consequences

Last time we checked, there were 12 months in a fiscal year, not nine. That state government now has to close a $1.6 billion shortfall in the current year’s budget by robbing Peter to pay Paul - taking money targeted for road construction and other services so that funds don’t run out for subsidized child care and prison guards and schools - is but one more example of the disaster that is Illinois, Inc.

In fact Democrats passed a dishonest and arguably illegal budget - so says the Illinois Constitution, which requires a balanced budget, not that a mere constitution matters - last spring, knowing their spending appetite was bigger than their wallet if the 2011 state income tax increase was allowed to expire. They could have extended it at any time before year’s end, with a Democratic governor who would have signed it, but chose not to.

So now they have to pass an emergency fund transfer that, as Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie of Chicago noted, will rescue “any school districts that are so up against it they can’t keep their doors open.” Why would legislators pass a budget in the first place that puts school kids “so up against it”? Meanwhile, former Gov. Pat Quinn reportedly was giving a Chicago-based movie studio $10 million the state didn’t have to purchase property that wasn’t even for sale.

The jury is still out on Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, but this is why he won.

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