Justice or Vengeance?
In 1978, Illinois abolished parole. As a result, any person convicted of a felony offense within the last 20 years lacks any process to evaluate the progression of their rehabilitation. Legal and moral arguments can be made to illustrate how Illinois’ legislation is archaic and counter productive.
First, Article 1 Section II of the Illinois Constitution states, “All penalties shall be determined both according to the seriousness of the offense and the objective of restoring the offender to useful citizenship”. Nevertheless, the absence of adequate reformative programming and services within the Illinois Department of Corrections and excessively lengthy sentences which detain offenders far beyond the point of verifiable rehabilitation are evidence of a dire direct violation and failure to comply with the requirement of restoration. Therefore, the Illinois Criminal Justice System is currently in breach of the dua purposes of penalty and restoration set forth by the Illinois State Constitution.
Next, the first purpose of the Illinois Code of Corrections permits the recognition of differences in rehabilitation possibilities among individual offenders. However, according to existing legislation, regardless of the most earnest efforts to be authentically improved, to maintain a clean disciplinary record, to acquire higher education or to gather vocational skills, offenders are statutorily prohibited the benefit of earned release.
Then, Illinois’ enactment of Truth-in- Sentencing laws, which require offenders to serve 100% or 85% of their sentences, have doubled the projected time to be served. In concert, the rules that apply to judges when deciding sentencing constrains them to impose consecutive sentences where concurrent sentences and a shorter prison stay would suffice to meet the obligation of penalty and maintaining public safety. This is in spite of increasing belief, both nationwide and in Illinois, that high levels of incarceration are unduly punitive, economically crippling, and adverse to the goal of preserving public safety.
Finally, it is a common euphemism that time served is an offender “paying a debt to society.” However, in literal terms, the exact opposite is true. Illinois taxpayers are spending $1.3 – $1.5 billion on the Illinois Department of Corrections budget. Funding being exhausted by a fractured criminal justice system has contributed exponentially to the state’s systemic, economic crisis.
In conclusion, beyond the pragmatism of why Illinois must support substantial criminal justice and sentencing reform is the humanity of it. Tough-on crime rhetoric may appease a small but vigorously influential group of voters but the long-term effects are detrimental to us all. Unforgiving viewpoints and legislation cause legal and ethical lines between justice and vengeance to be crossed and obscured.
We, as felons, accept that there is a stigma associated with our convictions. And also a dubious sentiment attached when contemplating the sincerity of our reformation. But ultimately, law-abiding citizens and legislators in positions to effect change must look within and acknowledge that a human being is much more than thuuue worst act they’ve ever committed. Offenders are redeemable and our lives can still be worthwhile contributions to our families, our communities, and to society as a whole.