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Probation Funding Hits Crisis Point Why You Should Care

By: Marcia M. Meis, Director, Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts

October 29, 2018

During the past few years, Illinois’ efforts to address chronic prison overcrowding resulted in successfully reducing its prison population, with new sentences decreasing approximately 30% between 2010 and 2017. While criminal case filings declined 33% during this period, however, the state’s overall probation caseload did not similarly decline. In fact, the proportionof those convicted of felonies sentenced to probation (versus prison) increased, accounting for nearly a quarter of the decrease in Illinois’ prison population over the past few years.

This increased reliance on probation serves to further highlight the vital role community corrections plays in ensuring an effective criminal justice system. Through evidence-based practices, community supervision requires individuals to be responsible, holds them accountable and incorporates rehabilitative components to reduce offender recidivism and create safer communities.

Over 3,000 probation personnel in our state are charged with providing all aspects of the administration and operation of the local probation and court services departments that serve Illinois’ 102 counties. Chances are, you have a friend or neighbor who works in pretrial services, adult probation, juvenile probation, or juvenile detention as an officer, or perhaps you or someone you know has touched the probation system as a client.

Probation in Illinois is funded on a partnership model between the counties and the State. The Probation and Probation Officers Act requires that the Supreme Court’s Division of Probation Services reimburse the counties for 100% of the salary of (1) all chief managing officers, (2) all approved probation officer and supervisor positions, and (3) all secure detention personnel and non-secure group home personnel, in addition to providing $1,000 per month salary subsidies for other approved positions. However, the State funding does not meet the statutorily-required reimbursement obligation for local probation departments, which means that resources to support probation departments increasingly comes from local sources.

With the Supreme Court operating under a flat budget for a fifth straight year in Fiscal Year 2019, reimbursements will drop yet again to the dismal level of approximately 66%. State reimbursement to county probation departments is now $45 million below the statutorily-required (100%) level of $127 million. Compounded with ever-increasing operational costs, the fiscal impact is devastating to county budgets and undermines the delivery of evidence-based supervision and services.
 
Probation is effective at reducing rates of re-arrest when it is properly funded and when combined with appropriate treatment, education, and employment services. Insufficient funding deprives adult and juvenile probation, juvenile detention, pretrial services, drug courts, mental health courts and veteran courts from operating at their most basic levels of service. Local communities depend on these programs to help veterans and other constituents battling issues such as opioid addiction, homelessness, and mental illness.

Both the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council and the Illinois Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform have emphasized the important role that probation departments play in community safety and reducing the prison population. Despite widespread support for these public policies, many counties have been forced to institute layoffs and reduce services to probation clients.

Public safety, alone, is reason enough to fully fund probation. But the fiscal benefit is clear, too. Probation offers enormous savings over housing individuals in prison. Probation is, by far, the most common sentence handed down in Illinois, with about 85,000 adults currently on probation, as opposed to almost 41,000 currently in prison. There are also over 9,000 juveniles under probation supervision and an additional 600 in juvenile detention facilities compared to about 300 youth incarcerated in the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice. Comparing the annual cost of an individual on probation (about $2,400) to housing an individual in prison (about $23,000) – the economies are clear. And the greater, and longer-lasting, savings is that probation allows individuals to remain with their families as productive, working members of the community.

For all of these reasons, a FY 2019 supplemental appropriation to the Supreme Court is critical to alleviate the crisis presented by the probation services funding shortfall.

Illinois was one of the early adopters of evidence-based practices for community corrections. Continued underfunding of probation and court services threatens advances currently underway. With adequate funding, the Supreme Court can fulfill the state’s statutory obligations to the county probation departments and Illinois can once again be a national leader in effective probation practices.