Being “tough on crime” has been good politics in Illinois for three decades. But as the 2006 Crime and Justice Index (PDF) just released by Chicago Metropolis 2020 suggests, it hasn’t been good government. The state Department of Corrections now spends a billion and a third dollars a year — 20 times what it did when Jim Thompson was first elected governor in 1976.

“Corrections has become a budget nightmare,” says Metropolis 2020 senior executive Paula Wolff, an alumna of that administration. If you put the state’s 245,000 prison inmates in one place, they’d comprise the second largest city in the state.

Most of the prisoners are black, come from the Chicago area, and return here; most of the prisons are in majority-white counties downstate. That’s no accident: for years downstate towns desperate for jobs actually competed with each other for prison sites, while places nearer Chicago resisted them. As in the case of polluting industries, prisons wound up where the locals could get nothing else. People who in another world would have been farmers, factory workers, or coal miners got jobs overseeing prisoners, and it was called “economic development.” In 2002, the 12 state prisons south of I-70 (not a misprint, this is far southern Illinois) employed more people than anything else in the area besides Southern Illinois University.

As Metropolis 2020 points out, following this political path of least resistance has made recidivism the path of least resistance for prisoners, who are often cut off from family ties. (Even if you own a reliable car, it’s no pleasure jaunt to Grayville or Mount Sterling.) It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what more than 70 percent of released prisoners in Chicago say, according to the report: “family support is an important factor in helping them avoid [returning to] prison . . . . If family relationships have become too tenuous or no longer exist, exiting prisoners are more susceptible to reestablishing gang and other criminal ties.” (This group is much too nice to put in the shiv about how few small-government family-values conservatives have objected to this policy, so I won’t either.)

Metropolis 2020 identifies a number of encouraging programs and trends, including an alleged softening of public opinion: “The public is more interested in the reasons why a person commits a crime and is increasingly supportive of rehabilitative programs and preventive policies.” That would be a welcome change. But in the meantime Illinois taxpayers have invested 30 years and hundreds of millions of dollars building a system that isolates prisoners and makes rehabilitation and prevention harder than ever.