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Chicago's Metropolitan Correctional Center has a capacity of 725, but is used mainly as a holding facility for people waiting for trial in federal court.

New report says non-violent criminals are clogging Illinois prisons

by Jonathan Greig
Feb 26, 2013

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The report
Overcrowding in Illinois prisons is costing taxpayers more than $1 billion a year, yet very few lawmakers have attempted to take on a system in dire need of reform.

In an effort to push lawmakers into action, the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law has looked at the need for alternatives to prison, especially for non-violent offenders.

“Our goal was to shed light on the need for more incarceration alternatives for non-violent offenders, to encourage public attention and support for reform efforts” said Shubra Ohri, a lawyer and author of the study, released last week.

In the report, she describes how, on top of costing taxpayers too much, the current prison system in Illinois isn’t keeping people safer and isn’t really reforming offenders.

About 70 percent of the almost 50,000 inmates in Illinois prisons are non-violent offenders and, according to the report, recidivism within the state is higher than most.

Other states have been able to save millions by reducing their prison population through policy and sentencing reforms while providing legitimate rehabilitation through alternatives such as drug courts and diversion programs.

“The mass of overused prisons in this state is an unintended consequence of bad policy and bad politics,” said John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association, a prison reform advocacy group in Illinois. “We ask it to do all things – from mental health to hospice care on down – yet the lack of funding and staffing makes it impossible for it to do anything well.”

The report details the alternatives to prison that other states have tried with great success. Cook County has created specialized drug courts, but critics say they’re underused and are rife with problems.

“We already have drug courts and diversion programs in Illinois. However, not everyone who qualifies for diversion programs is able to participate in them, because the state’s attorney has the discretion to decide whether an offender can be placed in the program,” Ohri said. “Expanding diversion programs would reduce recidivism.”

The state started a grant program called “Redeploy Illinois” for children and “Adult Redeploy,” which provides grants to municipalities that “allow diversion of non-violent offenders from state prisons by providing community-based services.”

The program began in 2009, but because it’s voluntary, many jurisdictions have been slow to adopt it.

So far, the program has been successful and only spends an average of $5,000 per year on each offender, far lower than the $22,000 spent on inmates and $84,000 spent on juvenile inmates.

Almost $17 billion could be saved per state if the non-violent offender population was reduced by half, the report said.

“Prisons play an important role in safety and how we deal with those most troubled in our society, but we really just overuse them,” Maki said.