Services Not Jail: A New Paradigm

Our purpose in holding the Robert B. Wilcox symposium “Serving Our Communities: Alternatives to Incarceration” last month was to bring forward a “new paradigm” for responding to low-level, non-violent offenders, especially those caught up in the failed, so-called “War on Drugs.”

(View the entire symposium on YouTube: Part I, Part II .)

Why do we need something different, indeed, a “new paradigm,” for enforcing drug laws? Because current practices destroy lives, waste money, and discriminate against African Americans and Hispanics.

In Illinois, approximately 20,000 individuals are sentenced for non-violent property or drug crime convictions each year. Almost 80 percent of those entering the Cook County Courts are African American, followed by 13 percent Latino and 8 percent white. Drug use across ethnic groups is roughly constant.

Incarceration costs about $22,000 per capita compared to about $6,000 for treatment and services and that could divert individuals from prison. Possible annual savings have been estimated at close to $220 million. We are realizing only a small fraction of that now.

At the symposium, Lisa Daugaard, associate director of The Defenders Association in Seattle, noted that “We are not broke, but the money is locked up in the criminal justice system.” She was referring what we spend arresting people when police could connect them directly to social services at far less cost. This is what is happening in Seattle under the LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) pilot program.

Our symposium underscored important initiatives in Illinois. The Cook County States Attorney in March 2011 initiated a Deferred Prosecution Program that had enrolled 384 by the end of that year. Adult Redeploy Illinois funds county programs that enable individuals to return home rather than entering the Illinois Department of Corrections. In just two years, over 680 individuals have been diverted at a saving of approximately $6.6 million.

What our symposium made clear, however, is the need not only for new programs, but coordinated leadership among all those responsible for criminal justice.

According to one person who attended the symposium, “The thing that jumps out about Chicago is the lack of coordination. We have no strategic plan for a criminal justice plan for Chicago and the County. If there is anything to be learned from large urban municipalities, it is that they have meetings about how my work affects your work, how my costs affect your costs.”

The absence of such coordinated efforts leads to huge financial and human costs. In Cook County, many of those arrested for low level drug offenses, mostly poor, African American, or Hispanic, sit in Cook County jail for an average of 25 days, even though over 60 percent of their cases are dismissed.

Why? One reason is that the Cook County States Attorney has little incentive to hire the staff necessary for prompt reviews of felony drug cases. The bulk of the savings would benefit the budgets of other offices. Nor would the States Attorney receive much, if any public credit. Tell that to the parents of kids who will never get a job because of an arrest that probably should not have been on their record in the first place.

Over two years ago, the Cook County board passed an ordinance creating an Advisory Panel to establish “collaborative relationship between the State, the County, local municipalities and local community based mental health and substance abuse providers with emphasis on mutual goals, shared responsibilities and benefits.” Such a panel would mirror the “coordinating councils” that have been so effective in bringing about reforms in Seattle, Milwaukee, and other parts of Illinois. The ordinance has not been implemented.

Leadership in Seattle and Milwaukee has shown that it is possible for all the participants in the administering of criminal justice to work together. It is time that we learned how to do this in Cook County and across Illinois as well.

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