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Illinois Calculates the High Costs of Recidivism

by Ed Lyon 

The state of Illinois seems to be getting serious about downsizing its prison population and reducing the number of offenders who return to prison after being paroled. Governor Bruce Rauner created a task force in 2015, the Illinois State Commission of Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform, to promulgate policies to achieve a 25 percent reduction in the state’s prison population by 2025. Recent data already show positive results. 

Despite the success in lowering the number of state prisoners, current recidivism statistics are dismal. It is anticipated that 96 percent of Illinois prisoners will eventually be released. Seventeen percent will reoffend within a year, while 43 percent will reoffend within three years. In 2016, Illinois saw 71,551 new convictions; of those, 70,610, or 89 percent, were reoffenders headed back to prison. 

A major incentive in the drive to downsize the prison population is a push to significantly reduce the state’s recidivism rate. A companion to the Commission formed by Governor Rauner is the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council. In a July 2018 report, the Council predicted that it will cost Illinois taxpayers more than $13 billion over the next five years if nothing is done to curtail recidivism. 

The Council, in conjunction with the Illinois Budgeting for Results Commission, calculated the cost of a single offender who returns to prison to be around $151,660 as of 2017. Breaking that number into its component parts, $75,408 is attributed to costs incurred by crime victims, with taxpayers shouldering $50,835 in law enforcement, jail and court expenses, including prosecution and indigent defense fees. The remaining $25,420 represents indirect costs such as “reduced economic activity,” since former prisoners who recidivate no longer earn salaries, pay taxes or otherwise contribute to their community. 

The Council estimated that reducing the recidivism rate by just one percent would save the state $10 million annually. It recommended removing employment barriers that keep former prisoners out of the work force, such as licensing restrictions, and easing negligent-hiring liability statutes for employers. More meaningful job opportunities for parolees would help to reduce overall recidivism rates, too.

“In the end, we’re going to have to think about having a total overhaul on how we do three things,” said Sharone Mitchell, Jr., deputy director of the Illinois Justice Project. “That is who goes to prison and who doesn’t,” as well as preparing prisoners for release and ensuring they have access to housing and employment. 



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