Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a bill this week that will allow people who've committed certain violent crimes to access court programs that substitute rehabilitation services for prison sentences, a move that advocates say will help reduce the state prison population, decrease crime, and save money.

SB3388 will allow Adult Redeploy Illinois, a state-funded probation program previously limited to those who'd committed nonviolent offenses like drunken driving and drug possession, to serve those convicted of “probation-eligible violent crimes” including some types of aggravated battery and domestic battery.

The change was driven by staff at county-level ARI sites, according to Lindsey LaPointe, a former ARI manager who now works with the Chicago-based policy group that helped write the bill.

“When somebody commits a violent charge, often it’s a symptom of behavioral health [issues],” LaPointe says. “Some counties expressed frustrations that they were forced to send that person to standard probation, where, in most cases, that means less services were available.”

There are currently ARI-funded programs serving 45 of Illinois’s 102 counties, with resources including cognitive behavioral therapy, trauma therapy, and drug rehabilitation, according to its website. Cook County has two ARI court programs: Honest Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) and the Access to Treatment Court (ACT). Since 2012, HOPE has offered cognitive behavioral and trauma therapy services, while ACT, since 2013, has provided 18-month treatment plans for substance abusers and people who commit retail theft with criminal histories.

Between January 2011 and December 2017, ARI programs diverted nearly 3,000 people into rehabilitation services, reducing the number of people who return to prison by 20 percent and saving the state $113.7 million, according to ARI’s internal numbers. Annually, it costs about $3,400 to serve one person in ARI, as opposed to $21,000 to incarcerate a person.

In fiscal year 2017, Illinois counties sent 1,880 people to state prisons — 660 of them from Cook County — who could have been eligible for an ARI program had the expansion bill been in place, says ARI.

Advocates say the bill symbolizes an important shift in criminal justice reform in Cook County and statewide.

“When programs have success with serving people who are facing probation-eligible violent charges, then that will set a tone and set and an example for other counties and other programs to do similarly,” LaPointe says. Other courts that are limited to serving nonviolent offenders include North Lawndale’s Restorative Justice Community Court, all Cook County drug courts, veteran’s court, and mental health court.

Currently people who’ve committed violent offenses and are placed on probation typically go through a waiting period before they can access rehabilitation services, according to David Olson, a criminal justice professor at Loyola University who has done research for and about ARI.

“[Violent offenders] get standard probation [and] go to prison, not because they're necessarily so dangerous, but [because] that’s been the only response,” Olson says. “There aren't any services there. They come out and they continue to re-offend, so we're wasting our time and resources.

“No one ever promises that a program like this will guarantee that no one ever does something bad, but if the [program] is done right, it will reduce the chances of that happening,” he adds.

In 2014, the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council reported that 48 percent of people released from prison commit another crime within three years of release; 19 percent return to prison within a year. Factoring in the cost of the criminal justice system and lost economic productivity, one reoffense costs the state nearly $118,746. By those metrics, continued incarceration trends from 2014 would cost the state $16.7 billion by 2019. Those numbers, especially in a state strapped for cash, have turned many criminal justice reforms into bipartisan issues. SB3388 passed the Illinois Senate unanimously, with only 28 state representatives voting nay. In 2015, Rauner set the goal to reduce Illinois’s number of inmates by 25 percent in 2025.

Signing SB3388 was a part of that strategy, says Elizabeth Tomev, Rauner’s communications director. “Rauner has made criminal justice reform and the safe reduction of our prison population a key component of his administration. The governor is committed to reforms that give people the training they need to rebuild their lives,” says Tomev.

Representative Margo McDermed, a Republican who represents District 37 (southern Cook County and Will County), voted against the bill.

“This bill is a little bit hasty and a little bit beyond where I think we are right now. There have been many criminal justice reform bills, so let’s digest a couple before we move on with evidence about what our current policies have generated and what we know would change with the outcomes that we’re looking to change,” McDermed says. “I’d rather work from evidence than emotions."

LaPointe notes that the bill doesn’t mandate that programs serve people with violent charges, but rather allows them to do so if they choose. It is consistent with ARI’s values, she says, to let counties have local control and design of their own programs.

The final authority will rest with probation judges, though it’s unclear what criteria they'll consider when diverting violent offenders into ARI courts. A spokesman for the Cook County Circuit Court couldn’t provide comment in time for publication.

The signed bill will take effect on January 1, 2019.

This report was produced by City Bureau, a Woodlawn-based civic journalism lab.