Law enforcement officials from around the state converged on Springfield Wednesday to urge the governor and legislators to end their budget stalemate in order to fund anti-crime programs for youth.
States attorneys and police chiefs blamed both Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratically-controlled Legislature for the nine-month stalemate.
Many state-funded programs and local nonprofits impacting youth have been hurt in the process, law officials said at a morning press conference at the state Capitol.
In a press conference later that morning at the Capitol, Rauner, who was joined by state lawmakers to tout what he called bipartisan criminal justice system reform, said he’s also disappointed by the stalemate.
The law enforcement officials represented areas such as Park Ridge, Lake County and Peoria County.
Tom Weitzel, police chief of Riverside, a western suburb of Chicago, expressed frustration directly at the governor, saying he’s even written a letter to Rauner voicing his concerns.
Despite having a low crime rate, Weitzel said his community of 9,000 residents is suffering because of the impasse.
Cases involving youth runaways, for example, routinely involve social service providers assisting Riverside officers. That’s no longer happening because “there’s no funding for those providers,” Weitzel said.
“Those types of situations are happening in a community like mine where I don’t really have street crime but where we need those social services,” said a visibly frustrated Weitzel.
At his press conference, Rauner said the budget fight of which he and the Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan are at the forefront is undermining many programs in the state. The governor, though, stressed that reforming the state’s justice system does have bipartisan support.
State Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago) agreed, saying that Democrats from his party are ready to work with Rauner on this issue.
The reforms include increased use of home-monitoring for offenders who’d otherwise spend only a short time in prison, and giving judges greater flexibility in determining the appropriate sentence for an offender.
Rauner said some of those reforms will be submitted as legislation to the General Assembly. The goal, Rauner said, is to reduce the state’s prison population by giving offenders opportunities for rehabilitation.
Illinois has about 50,000 people in prison, a number Rauner would like to cut by 25 percent in 10 years.
“Our criminal justice system has been broken in Illinois for decades. This is not a recent event,” he said, describing the problem as a long-term structural challenge.
“Our prisons are overcrowded and we have a very high recidivism rate. We’re taking folk who’ve committed a first-time offense and locking them away with hardened criminals, and they’re actually learning more criminal behavior.”
Programs like Redeploy, where youth offenders receive community-based services instead of doing time, will help reduce recidivism, Rauner said.
But law enforcement officials said such programs have been under-funded or eliminated during the stalemate.
“It pains me as a prosecutor to see that even the basic crime-prevention efforts are not being funded,” said Mike Nerheim, state’s attorney for Lake County in Northeastern Illinois.
After school programs that keep kids off the street in his community have been severely hurt, Nerheim said.
One such program, Teen Reach, has gone unfunded since June 2015, law enforcement officials noted.
Targeting youth ages 6 to 17, the program had about 13,000 youth participate at 122 community sites in 2015, according to the Illinois Department of Human Services. The program’s funding, however, has steadily declined since the mid-2000s, from $17 million in 2007 to just $3 million in ’15.
“We look at programs like Teen Reach; it’s been incredibly successful, but because of the lack of a state budget, one-in-four of these programs have shut down,” Nerheim said.
Programs like Teen Reach are important because they target at-risk youth from mostly troubled communities, said Andrea Durbin, CEO of Illinois Collaboration on Youth, a statewide network of over 50 youth agencies founded in 1979.
In a phone interview Thursday, Durbin praised law enforcement officials for speaking out on the issue.
“They get it. The way to keep kids out of the criminal justice system is to keep them engaged,” said Durbin, who also expressed frustration with the fighting in Springfield.
“It’s beyond frustrating. It’s a political fight and makes no sense from a policy perspective. It’s completely backwards,” said Durbin, who’s also co-chair of ACTNow Illinois, a statewide coalition of youth agencies and advocates supporting after-school programs.
Susan Stanton, ACTNow’s network leader, said that roughly a third of the agencies offering Teen Reach have shut down as of August 2015, based on estimates provided by the Human Services department.
“We have a solution but because of what’s going on over the state budget, we’re not helping these kids like we should be,” she said.
In fact, spending money on programs like Teen Reach and Redeploy costs far less than locking youth up, said Union County State’s Attorney Tyler Edmonds.
In Illinois, the per capita cost for incarcerating a single youth offender is $85000, according to the Illinois State Bar Association. By comparison, the state’s Redeployment Program would cost under $10,000.
Law enforcement officials stressed that they’re not looking for additional state money but a commitment to fund what’s already working.
“We’re not,” Edmonds said, “experts on state finance, but investing small amounts on these programs is going to save the state money in the short and long run.”