Coauthored with Sakira Cook of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. This op-ed was originally published at The State Journal-Register on August 26, 2016.
State Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, is running an attack ad against his opponent that might have seemed smart politics. In 1985. The reality is his ad is wrong policy … and wrong politics.
Bradley attacks his opponent on an issue that has support from conservatives, progressives, business associations, veterans’ groups, civil rights advocates, liberty lovers and faith leaders: smart justice reform. It’s important to examine Bradley’s claims, especially in light of what is happening in Illinois.
It’s no secret the state is in the midst of a huge budget crisis, and state government is in dire need of reforms that will make agencies and services more efficient and effective. Gov. Bruce Rauner rightly saw the unsustainable justice system as the best place to start. The state’s corrections system is racking up an annual bill of $1.4 billion, up almost $200 million in the past eight years. Prisons are overcrowded at 150 percent capacity, disproportionately impacting African-Americans who make up over 57 percent of the prison population, and over 40 percent of those leaving state prisons are returning within three years.
Rauner formed the bipartisan Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform to make recommendations that will safely reduce the state’s prison population and improve outcomes. These reforms have proven successful in states across the country. Texas implemented reforms in 2007, closed three prisons, saved the state more than $2 billion, and now the Lone Star state enjoys its lowest crime rate since the 1960s. Connecticut’s series of justice reforms have produced the lowest prison population in two decades, fostered stronger probation and reentry practices, and resulted in falling crime rates across the state. Georgia is on its third round of reforms, and these efforts have already lowered crime rates and avoided the need for 5,000 new prison beds that would have cost taxpayers $264 million.
That’s why reforming our justice system is an issue that bridges the right-left ideological spectrum. Support is strong on the federal level, where both Illinois U.S. Senators, Democrat Dick Durbin and Republican Mark Kirk, are proud sponsors of reform proposals in the chamber. In Springfield, support for justice reform is uniting Democrats like Sen. Kwame Raoul of Chicago with Rodger Heaton, a former prosecutor appointed by President George W. Bush who now heads Rauner’s commission. Even the Republican and Democratic platforms both addressed the need for sentencing reform this year.
With his archaic view of our justice system, John Bradley is on an island.
Even in a campaign cycle where real data often takes a back seat to rhetoric, you’d still have to question the political sense of airing such an ad. Polling by the bipartisan U.S. Justice Action Network, of which our organizations are partners, has shown that Illinois voters — both Democrats and Republicans — are overwhelmingly in support of these policies.
Ninety-two percent of voters — including 92 percent of Democrats and 96 percent of Republicans — favor reducing prison time for those who commit low-risk, nonviolent offenses. Eighty-seven percent of Illinois voters — including 89 percent of Democrats and 91 percent of Republicans — would support replacing mandatory minimum sentences with sentencing ranges that are tailored to the individual circumstances of each case.
Most politicians running for office only dream of favorability numbers like that. And during a time when one in three American adults has a criminal record, Bradley is distancing himself from the reality that almost every family has been impacted by our broken justice system.
We know these policies save money and make our communities safer. We know they have widespread political support. What we cannot understand is Rep. Bradley’s tired and ill-advised ad. Rep. Bradley needs a tutorial on smart justice policy, and a flux capacitor to pull him out of 1985.
Jason Pye is director of communications for FreedomWorks. Sakira Cook is counsel for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. These two organizations represent the right-left partnership of the U.S. Justice Action Network, the largest bipartisan organization working to reform the justice system in Illinois and across the country.