By Chris Lazare
This summer, the Illinois Legislature passed Senate Bill 2129, which would allow state’s attorneys to petition for the release of incarcerated individuals with long sentences who do not pose any risk to their communities. This second chance legislation recognizes that individuals who have committed crimes are capable of change over time and gives more people an opportunity at a second chance by removing them from the system entirely.
I am proud of the progress we have made working on the back-end of our mass incarceration problem. And I know our state wouldn’t be a leader in these efforts without the hard work of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, the leaders of which developed an ambitious four-pillar plan to dismantle systemic racism in our state, including in our criminal legal system.
We must continue to be bold in our quest for a more just and equitable criminal legal system. There is still more work to do, even as we applaud the reform measures our legislators fought for this session. This law, while a good step in the right direction, is limited in its potential impact — many individuals who may otherwise be eligible for relief under SB 2129 do not live in jurisdictions where state’s attorneys are likely to apply for relief on their behalf. In fact, outside of Lake and Cook Counties, no state’s attorney has demonstrated a commitment to criminal justice reform that inspires any confidence that they will affirmatively seek out or review eligible candidates for a “second look,” let alone take the necessary steps to petition for their release.
As of December 2020, around 47% of the Illinois prison population was sentenced by a court in Lake or Cook County. That means 53% of the state’s prison population was sentenced in jurisdictions where state’s attorneys are not likely to file motions. That’s thousands of people who might otherwise be eligible for a second chance but will not get it. Until there are mechanisms by which incarcerated individuals are able to individually file their own motion for release, the continued incarceration of people who have demonstrated meaningful transformation will remain costly, inhumane, and not in the public interest.
Research shows that even those who make mistakes can and do rehabilitate to become productive members of their communities. In fact, individuals tend to age out of committing crimes. By the time people reach their thirties, their odds of committing future crimes drop dramatically — largely due to neurological changes that occur until an individual’s mid-20s.
The human and fiscal costs of such lengthy sentences are glaring. Communities lose neighbors and loved ones for decades at a time due to excessive sentencing practices, especially our communities of color. People of color, and Black people in particular, disproportionately receive longer sentences; in Illinois, the overwhelming majority — a full 87% — of people serving a life or de facto life sentence are people of color, and most of those individuals are Black.
This continued investment in a failing system also costs us our taxpayer dollars. Due to dramatically increasing health care requirements, it is approximately 2.2 times more costly to incarcerate individuals who are over 50 years old — an astounding increase when taking into account that it costs Illinois, on average, approximately $35,000 annually per incarcerated individual.
We all make mistakes, sometimes serious ones. But even people who have made serious mistakes can learn from them, change, and get a chance at redemption. While we made significant progress with this law, this progress will not be as meaningful as it should be unless incarcerated individuals have the power to file motions on their own behalf. The legislature should build on the good work they have already done and ensure all people living behind bars who pose no safety risk can reunite with their families and communities.
Chris Lazare is the Organizing Director of Grassroots Law Project, and served on the Beto for Texas campaign as Deputy Distributed Organizing Director in 2018.