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New Initiatives Needed To Reduce Prison Population

Flickr user Tim (Timothy) Pearce / "Prison cell with bed inside Alcatraz main building san francisco california" (CC BY 2.0)

Illinois is making strides to reduce the inmate population by taking the initiative to address problems and discuss some possible solutions. Last week was "Sociology Week" at Northern Illinois University. It presented several opportunities to address issues about crime that cause prisons to fill up quickly.

The NIU Sociology department was co-host of the John Howard Association's "Prison Reform Illinois" presentation.

NIU sociology professor Jack King has been looking at data on prison reform. He says that, to reduce incarceration, society needs to look at alternatives, resources, and training programs. "Sending people to prison does not necessarily rehabilitate them, and in most cases does not rehabilitate them... and evidence seems to support that."

He says programs across the country have found ways to reduce incarceration across the board by offering some programs with little or no supervision. "There are some new initiatives coming out of the state of Illinois that are ear-marked funds for pilot projects for people to find ways to treat people in the community, and at the same time keep them, not only out of the Department of Corrections, but hopefully keep them out of the county correctional system, and the county jail system."

Jane Ann Moore of the Interfaith Network, is an advocate for prison reform. She helped facilitate a discussion of how taxpayers can have voices heard on issues of mass incarceration. Moore says it's a continuing problem.

If people work together, she says, society could come up with a viable solution to reduce spending on prisons and jails. "We are encouraged by the possibility of both of our political parties working together to reduce the minimum mandatory sentencing."

She says low-income families are affected the most as far as being in jail because they are already at a disadvantage. "A large percentage of people who are there because they couldn't pay bail and they haven't even been tried and found guilty yet." They cannot afford a private lawyer, and court-appointed attorneys are making some deals with the state that are sometimes unnecessary, Moore says. "There are also people who have been given five to seven years for merely having some marijuana. These sentences are too long."

DeKalb County State's Attorney Richard Schmack has supported new initiatives to reduce prison population and to keep the county jails safe and effective. DeKalb County has a grant to fund a mental health court and is awaiting the budget to fund it. Once DeKalb County receives the grant monies to separate the courts into their proper categories, Schmack says, residents will start seeing some changes to the judicial system as far as jailing drug addicts and individuals with mental-health issues. "Obviously we have a fully functioning drug court operation that, that limits itself to high risk, high need for our clientele, I'm on the drug court team as is Jack King here from the sociology department. Jack is working with us with a grant that we have for through Re-Employ Illinois to set up a fully functional mental health court."

Schmack says DeKalb County already is working towards some programs that help inmates once they are released from jail. To ensure that they aren't repeat offenders, he said, leaders need to look for resources that won't cost taxpayers. "The county board is on board with us doing this if we don't have to spend any money."

Phillip Whittington, of the John Howard Association, came into contact with the prison system himself at an early age. He has since dedicated his work to helping families of inmates address issues within the prison system. Whittington says the John Howard Association is not a law firm but provides recommendations to what families with complaints can do. "We have made several statements as to issues that need to be addressed, like different ways to approaching the mentally ill, who, not necessarily dangerous but they're being picked up for crimes that I'd say we're more mad at them than afraid of them and the same with drug users."

He says people can help by advocating for resources to assist in the community who are suffering from lack of programs that foster prosperity and education.  "I often encourage people to ask that ask this question of the John Howard Association, basically to reach out to their legislators, to let them know that you want to have your limited tax dollars spent up front in different ways to deal with issues rather than building prisons." The problems with mass incarceration is being discussed around the country, authorities are investigation the major affects this has had on local communities.