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Flat Court Budget Hits Probation Hardest

By: Marcia M. Meis, Director, Administrative Director of the AOIC

June 25, 2018

 

In his March 2018 column for Illinois Courts Connect, Chief Justice Karmeier discussed an issue that has become a perennial challenge - securing adequate funding for the Illinois judicial branch of government. Notwithstanding the presentation of data and testimony evidencing great need for a significant increase, the State Fiscal Year 2019 budget that was signed into law earlier this month appropriated to the Supreme Court – for the fifth straight year – the exact amount appropriated back in July 1, 2014.

This was a blow for all state-paid judicial branch operations, but it is particularly detrimental to probation services. It is disheartening that budgetary cuts made to successful and proven programs – and probation is only one of many – are viewed as prudent stewardship of state funds when the cuts actually cost our society infinitely more in the long run. While the short-term fiscal savings may be delivered, the long-term costs will be much higher. 

In recent years, Illinois has been part of a national movement away from incarceration and toward community corrections. The stated goal of reducing the Illinois prison population – “25% by 2025” – was one of the major initiatives of Governor Rauner’s Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform. The report of that commission highlights the need for sufficient funding for probation in order to absorb, and adequately supervise, the population which would no longer be incarcerated in prison.

Probation – which includes adult and juvenile probation and pretrial services under the authority of the Illinois Supreme Court – is the most frequently used sentencing option utilized by the Illinois Courts. Probation makes Illinois safer by effectively managing offenders under its supervision while providing the courts with a cost effective, community-based alternative to incarceration. The primary goal of probation is to enhance community safety while providing probationers with the rehabilitative tools, resources and services to ensure a safe, productive and law-abiding future.

The state is statutorily mandated to pay a portion of probation personnel costs, and counties are responsible for a portion of salaries, fringe benefits and all operational costs of local probation and court services. The partnership established by the Probation and Probation Officers Act (730 ILCS 110/15) between the State of Illinois and counties has historically been strong in terms of state and local Judicial Branch cooperation. However, for many years, insufficient revenue from the budgetary process has meant that the state has not been able to fulfill its statutory responsibility to adequately fund probation [730 ILCS 110/15(1)(h)]. The state funding percentage of the statutorily mandated amount (100%) has declined in each of the last few years (88% in SFY2016, 84% in SFY2017, 81.5% in SFY2018 and, most recently, about 71% in SFY2019). This is compounded by increased probation overhead costs and the compelling need to continue support to programs and evidence-based services that are proven to reduce recidivism.

The continued erosion of funding threatens the effectiveness and cost-savings of probation as an alternative to prison. The differences are significant. The annual cost of housing one prisoner is $38,000 compared to the cost of supervising one adult in the community at $2,500. Even more dramatic, the annual cost of one juvenile on probation is around $3,700, whereas one juvenile housed by the Department of Juvenile Justice costs about $70,000 annually. One would be hard pressed to find a better bang for the buck. And probation works.

Current and evolving evidence-based services such as pretrial supervision, problem-solving courts and cognitive behavioral programs are all proven to be effective in reducing recidivism by adults and juveniles on supervision in the community. In addition, pretrial reform reduces over-reliance on jails and ensures guaranteed constitutional protections be provided to those arrested – and presumed innocent – while awaiting trial. Yet in spite of the Bail Reform Act signed into law last year, the FY 2019 budget does not provide the requested resources to help counties develop successful pretrial services programs.

The flat FY 2019 Court budget, and the resultant burden on the counties, will no doubt escalate the number of vacant probation positions. This means higher caseloads per officer and less ability to supervise probationers.  No one in the legislative or executive branch ever intends to erode the safety of our communities, but probation can only be effective when it is given the tools and resources to do what it is charged to do. We remain hopeful that Fiscal Year 2019 still holds promise for additional funding to support probation services and enable its continued success.