Not so long ago, we came to the realization that America – land of the free, home of the brave – really likes to lock people up.
The statistic you can find on Wikipedia is that the U.S. had the highest incarceration rate in the world, accounting for 4.4 percent of the world’s population and 22 percent of its prisoners.
There’s 2.3 million people in jail or prison in the U.S., according to a March estimate from the nonprofit, nonpartisan Prison Policy Initiative.
Keeping people in cages costs money – to guard them, to feed them, to heat their living quarters.
It also exacts a human toll – incarcerating someone for a week or more can cost them their jobs and their homes, and it can imperil family members who might depend on their income.
People almost never want to pay more taxes for prisons and jails, however. That’s why DeKalb County has more jail inmates than cells, forcing the county to pay other counties’ jails to house them. It’s why DeKalb County Board members agreed to a massive landfill expansion in order to pay to enlarge the county jail.
The only way to reduce the incarcerated population is to let people out of prisons and jails, or not to send them there in the first place.
That means allowing people accused of crimes out while on home monitoring with a GPS ankle bracelet, or fitting them with devices that can detect if they’ve consumed alcohol, or sometimes releasing them without requiring them to post cash bail.
It means not holding people in jail just because you question their immigration status, a practice Illinois lawmakers sought to end with the recently passed Trust Act.
It means finding diversion programs and other alternative justice methods to keep people out of prisons, or shortening the amount of time we sentence them to stay behind bars, or granting them parole more quickly.
It probably also requires changing our drug laws, and maybe treating addicts less like criminals and more like people with an affliction.
Those ideas don’t always sit well with people.
Consider the social media criticism we regularly see of DeKalb County judges, including Chief Judge Robbin Stuckert.
Every time a person charged (not convicted, mind you, but charged) with a crime is released without being required to post hundreds or thousands of dollars in bail, people complain about it on the Daily Chronicle Facebook page. They say Stuckert is soft on crime and vow to vote her out of office.
That’s not going to happen – Stuckert was retained in 2016, and judges almost never lose retention votes.
Also, it shouldn’t happen. Stuckert has been a judge here since 2001 and been presiding judge of the 23rd Judicial Circuit for almost all of the five-plus years I’ve been editor here.
In my experience, she’s worked to make the local courts keep up with the times and has been fair to those in her courtroom.
Being fair does not always make one popular, however.
Nobody likes crime, and people get mad when they read allegations in the paper. But if we truly want judges to presume people are innocent – and we do – shouldn’t most of the accused have a fair shot to remain free while they await trial?
Of course, some people can’t be released as easily. Those accused of heinous crimes, serial killers and child molesters, should have high hurdles to clear.
People who continue to be accused of crimes despite multiple arrests and second chances sometimes have to remain in jail because they won’t stop.
But we shouldn’t keep most people in jail because we’re mad at them, or because they’re too poor to post bail, or because incarcerating them makes money for the government.
Those kind of reasons for locking people up are part of how we ended up with so many people behind bars in the first place.
• Eric Olson is editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.