Governor Bruce Rauner has yet to act on a number of bills to reduce the incarcerated population. Credit: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photo

Soon after Governor Bruce Rauner took office last winter, he sat down for a meeting with state rep Kelly Cassidy. She says Rauner asked if she would support his “turnaround agenda,” a series of probusiness proposals that would, among other things, restrict union organizing and worker’s compensation. Cassidy is one of the most liberal members of the General Assembly, and she says she explained to the Republican governor that her far-north-side district wouldn’t support his “turnaround” plans.

But Cassidy noted that the two were of like minds on another issue: criminal justice reform. Cassidy wanted to ease penalties for marijuana possession, which lands thousands of African-American men in jail and prison each year, and Rauner had campaigned on his own promise to reduce the prison population.

“I had a very good conversation with him” about criminal justice, Cassidy says. “I told him, ‘That’s our sweet spot.'”

Sure enough, over the next few months, the governor and General Assembly seemed to be on the same track on that issue, if little else. As Rauner created a criminal justice reform commission, legislators passed a series of historic bills that would reduce incarceration and streamline the system—evidence that Illinois is part of the nationwide movement away from the tough-on-crime policies of the past.

Since then, the push for rightsizing the justice system in Illinois has itself been held captive.

Like much of state government, the reforms are on hold as Rauner battles with house speaker Michael Madigan and senate president John Cullerton over the state budget. The bills that could start transforming the system sit on the governor’s desk awaiting his signature.

“I’d like to think that he’s going to be able to silo this from the other budget issues,” says Democratic state rep Mike Zalewski. “But my sense is that he’s not in the mood to do much bill signing right now.”

The governor’s office says his goals haven’t changed. “The governor has made criminal justice reform a cornerstone of his administration,” spokeswoman Catherine Kelly wrote in an e-mail.

But Kelly then blasted Madigan “and the legislators he controls” for failing to pass a balanced budget and for bringing the state to a standstill. That’s a good sign of where the process now stands.

Reshaping the criminal justice system has become a goal of both the left and the right around the country. Several of the GOP candidates for president, starting with Rand Paul, have spoken of the need to reduce the country’s incarcerated population, which has grown 500 percent over the last 40 years, to about 2.2 million, according to the Sentencing Project, a reform group. And this week President Obama made his strongest appeal yet for changing the system, from the way police interact in the community to the opportunities ex-offenders get after serving their time.

Representative Zalewski offers himself as an example of politicians who are distancing themselves from the crackdown policies of the past. A former prosecutor, Zalewski represents a district on the southwest side and neighboring suburbs that occasionally struggles with gang conflicts, though it’s by no means the most troubled area in Chicago.

Two years ago, intent on responding to violence in Chicago and other cities, Zalewski pushed a bill to lengthen mandatory-minimum sentences for gun crimes. If it had passed, the legislation would have sent thousands more offenders to state prisons, which were already housing 50 percent more inmates than they were designed for.

Black legislators and reform groups fought the bill, arguing that the state couldn’t afford more young men cycling in and out of prison—financially or socially. And Zalewski himself came to believe that it was time for a thorough look at why so many resources were spent on locking people up, most for nonviolent offenses.

“I think what the mandatory-minimum bill did was force the General Assembly to have a conversation that was a long time coming about the criminal justice system,” Zalewski says.

The push for reforms in Illinois gained momentum with the election of Rauner, who took up the cause despite having financial investments in regressive justice systems in other states.

In February Rauner appointed a commission to develop plans for cutting the inmate rolls in Illinois by a quarter over the next decade. “Our prisons are overcapacity and too many offenders are returning to prison,” he said. “We need to take a comprehensive, holistic approach to our justice system.”

Lawmakers then proceeded to pass a wave of progressive legislation designed to streamline the system and correct some of the harshest crackdowns of the past.

One bill would reduce the number of juveniles automatically transferred to adult court for violent crimes; another mandates rules for investigations of police-involved deaths.

Zalewski himself cosponsored several other reform bills. House bill 356 would let Chicago police test suspected drugs in the field instead of sending them off to a lab, while senate bill 202 would speed up the court process for some people charged with retail theft and trespassing. Both should reduce the number of offenders waiting in jail for their cases to be resolved.

Garnering the most attention was house bill 218, which would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana: getting caught with as much as half an ounce would be a petty offense punishable with a ticket. The measure, which Cassidy worked on for more than a year, could keep thousands of possessors out of jail.

All of these bills were pushed by Democrats but passed with the help of GOP votes.

“The governor’s willingness to have a good-faith conversation on criminal justice issues—that fact alone allowed us to pass a lot of bills,” says Zalewski. “Republicans weren’t looking over their shoulders. That was a huge dynamic shift.”

The bills were all passed this spring and sent to the governor last month.

Rauner has a total of 60 days to act, but he hasn’t signaled when or if he intends to. Kelly, his spokeswoman, would only say, “The governor will carefully consider any legislation that crosses his desk.”

Legislators say it’s clear that Rauner is taking his time and trying to avoid anything that could distract attention from his turnaround agenda and showdown with Madigan.

In the meantime, the governor’s criminal justice reform commission quietly issued its first report earlier this month. It states that the commission is exploring a number of proposals that would have been unthinkable even a short time ago. Among them: reducing penalties for the possession of less than an ounce of hard drugs, including cocaine and heroin; increasing the number of offenses punishable with probation instead of prison; and offering tax breaks to businesses that employ ex-offenders.

But lawmakers I spoke with didn’t even know the report had been released, and the governor’s office would only say that he’s “pleased” that work is underway.

The state prison system continues to be dangerously overcrowded. While the inmate rolls have fallen slightly over the last year, to 47,500, that’s still 3,000 higher than ten years ago, and 148 percent of what the facilities were designed for.

About half the inmates are in for nonviolent offenses. There are few opportunities waiting for them when they’re released, and if current trends continue, about half will return to prison again.