A Prison Nation No More

Not too long ago, the police department, the prosecutor’s office, and the public defenders association in Seattle, Washington were stalemated. They had been fighting for eight years over allegations of discriminatory law enforcement against African American and Hispanics for low level offenses. Finally, a police lieutenant interrupted one of their meetings: “This isn’t helping anyone. What can we do differently?”

They worked together to create a radically new approach. Those who designed it will be joining us at the Chicago Temple on October 10 for the Robert B. Wilcox Symposium, “Serving Our Communities: Alternatives to Incarceration.”

We hope you will be present to meet them and other leaders in criminal justice to learn about their solution: in Seattle’s LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) program, police work directly with social service providers without having to navigate the court system first. This may be the only place in the country where this is happening. Early signs are that it is working well.

Cook County Board President, Toni Preckwinkle; Cook County State’s Attorney, Anita Alvarez; Chicago Police Superintendent, Garry McCarthy; and Milwaukee County District Attorney, John Chisholm will participate. We will also be bringing forward two other models for keeping non-violent low-level offenders out of the criminal justice system: Milwaukee County Treatment Alternatives and Diversion and Adult Redeploy in Illinois. These programs are making communities safer, saving tax payers money, and enabling non-violent offenders to rebuild their lives.

Consider that Adult Redeploy Illinois, which funds counties to divert non-violent offenders who would otherwise be headed to the Department of Corrections, has 10 sites which have already saved $11 million in incarceration costs. We will be meeting the leaders of their Macon County project, an early success.

The need for such alternatives is overwhelming. Due in large part to the failed War on Drugs, the United States has become a prisoner nation, with 2.3 million incarcerated, more per capita than any other country on the planet. This includes 49,000 in Illinois, disproportionately African American and Hispanic. About 20% of those in Illinois prisons are there on average just 60 days. Most will be re-incarcerated within three years. We are cycling people in and out of prison at huge cost and great suffering.

Last week at the Illinois Justice Commission hearings organized by The Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, which organizes African American churches, one ex-offender observed: “We recycle cans, paper, and cardboard. Can’t we spend just a little bit more to restore our most valuable resource — human beings?” That’s what diversion does. It makes new lives possible.

These programs are leaders in a movement toward sane public policy. Wise investments now can help us avoid much larger costs later. The difficulty is in making the case so convincingly that even elected officials, some of whom won’t get the credit in future years, are willing to do the right thing today.

LEAD is the national test case of whether we can move toward this better way. Two foundations — Open Society and Ford — are providing drug treatment, housing, counseling and other services for next four years, long enough to establish what can be accomplished with adequate support. At the symposium, we will learn how the leaders of LEAD are approaching the difficult problem of evaluation.

Please join us on Wednesday, October 10, to hear more and ask questions. These models represent a new paradigm for responding to those on the margins whose lives have been damaged in no small measure by misguided drug policy. They deserve your attention and support.

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