Sun-Times Commentary, "Putting too Many People in Prison"

Sunday, January 10, 2010

In Illinois, we are putting too many people in prison, often the wrong ones, at huge taxpayer expense with the emergence of a growing unemployable underclass to boot.
Even though his prisoner “early release” program has been derailed for now, Gov. Quinn was traveling in the right direction when he created it last September. There must be a change in incarceration policy in Illinois, and the governor has shown courage in tackling the problem.

The dramatic growth in our prison population began in the early 1970s when we turned to a “tough on crime” policy and Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs.”

Since then, the United States has become a “prisoner nation.” The number of people involved with the criminal justice system has increased by a factor of five, to a total of 2.1 million. One in every 31 individuals in our country today is in prison, on parole or in jail awaiting trial.

In Illinois, more than 40,000 individuals are admitted to the Department of Corrections each year. More than half of all Illinois drug prison sentences are for simple possession of small amounts of drugs. The cost to taxpayers for incarceration is about $23,000 per individual per year.

Many of these individuals are nonviolent offenders who should not have been incarcerated. Once arrested, they stand the chance of being re-cycled in and out of prison for the rest of their lives. About 50 percent of all those released from Illinois prisons return within three years.

Our incarceration policies are highly discriminatory. One in every nine young black men was incarcerated nationally in 2000 compared to one out of every 66 young white men, even though drug use is the about the same for both groups. The heaviest burden falls upon African-American men who have dropped out of high school: no fewer than 60 percent are likely to be in prison by age 35.

It is dangerous to ignore the underclass created by our policies. It is myopic to spend nearly a quarter of a billion dollars holding nonviolent offenders in Illinois jails and prisons. For $5,000 or less per individual, we could provide drug treatment and other services, as an alternative to incarceration for a large percentage of this population.

Other states have figured this out. Starting in 2001, California began diverting about 36,000 individuals to treatment annually at a saving of up to $4 for every dollar spent. Diversion and treatment practices enable Virginia to hold only 25 percent of its nonviolent drug offenders in prison compared to Illinois’ 50 percent.

This is what Quinn was seeking to accomplish when he supported and funded the passage of the Crime Reduction Act last spring. This legislation created the new Adult Redeploy program, which will provide funds to counties and courts to create services in exchange for sending fewer nonviolent people to prison. It provides also a Sentencing Policy Advisory Council that will assess who should be in prison and report to the General Assembly on the effectiveness of the act.

In short, instruments for significant reform in Illinois are now in place. Quinn deserves credit for supporting them.

It would be tragic if recent events distract us from the potential these measures offer for a sensible prison policy for Illinois. In the long run, they will serve all the citizens of Illinois well.

The Rev. Alexander E. Sharp is executive director of Protestants for the Common Good, an Illinois faith-based advocacy organization.

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