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Commentary: Correction policy trapped by fear

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 19, 2009 - When the Quinn administration began pondering whether to slash millions in prison payroll costs by prematurely releasing thousands of inmates, many politicians and citizens immediately saw red – and they were not looking at the ink on the state’s deficit-dominated ledgers.

They warned that allowing prisoners to exit several months before their scheduled departure would further endanger us, even if the initiative were restricted to nonviolent offenders monitored electronically. They reacted as if this would be a sea change in Illinois’ penal policy and practice.

Yet, it would be closer to a ripple.

Concerns about swamping parole agents and community agencies should not be discounted. But we need to recognize Illinois already engages in early release by circumstance – a reality that merits more focus than foment.

More than 50 percent of the 38,000 returned to communities annually serve less than six months in prison and 22 percent of those committed directly from courts are there less than 60 days. They typically get credit for their detention at the local level prior to conviction and sentencing for the least aggressive and egregious felonies, primarily drug possession. Like the vast majority of those we incarcerate, they have narcotics or alcohol issues. Most lack high school degrees and test at an eighth-grade level.

They generally do not have sufficient time while imprisoned to take full advantage of a substance abuse treatment program even if it is available. Ditto for making significant progress on the education front or attaining job skills. After they are paroled, they need drug treatment, mental health, employment and housing services from community-based providers that consistently have been underfunded and overburdened. Small wonder, it is, that half return to prison at a hefty tab to taxpayers.

Experts in the corrections field are convinced Illinois could save – or constructively redeploy – tens of millions of dollars by effectively preparing prisoners for release and marshaling services as they re-enter society. That would require looking beyond the crisis of the moment and investing dollars today to achieve future economies by reducing recidivism. It would require competent, courageous leadership to muster and strategically use resources even if it riles some voters and potent interests.

Instead, we have the notion of earlier release surfacing while social service agencies crucial to rehabilitating ex-offenders deplete staffs and turn away clients due to deep reductions in state funding and serious doubts that responsible governance will prevail in the months ahead. A bleeding treasury often leads to panicky, erratic cuts. Still, in better times, the pressure for fiscal and programmatic reform abates.

So, it is difficult to envision circumstances that will lead elected and appointed officials to thoughtfully re-examine policies and practices in corrections, education and other areas that claim the bulk of state dollars. But we should prod them.

Why are we imprisoning offenders when they will be released within months – especially given the heavy front-end expenses of admission and evaluation? What alternatives work and how do we promote and fund them? Does it make sense to have separate probation and parole systems? How do we close unneeded or antiquated institutions while mitigating disruption for workers and communities?

How about those who spend decades in prison? The gray hairs consume the lion’s share of the $110 million the Department of Corrections allocates annually on health care in compliance with federal court rulings. Do we have the wisdom and will to consider “early” release for more of this population, which has grown sharply as a result of Class X and other extended-sentence laws enacted since the 1970s?

We’ve gotten tough. We’ve seen red. We need to get smarter.

Mike Lawrence retired Nov. 1, 2008, as director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. He is returning to his journalism roots as a twice-monthly columnist.