By Christopher Zoukis
Criminal Justice reform has been a major focus for Governor Bruce Rauner of Illinois, and a number of changes have already been made toward the ultimate goal of reducing the state’s prison population by 25 percent by 2025.
Since launching a commission on criminal justice and sentencing reform, Rauner has implemented initiatives such as providing offenders with state IDs upon re-entry to help facilitate transitioning into the community, reducing one common hurdle to becoming productive members of society, and a move toward reducing recidivism.
Recently, Gov. Rauner also announced that a juvenile facility, the Illinois Youth Center Murphysboro, which has been empty since 2012, will be repurposed into a minimum security Life Skills and Re-entry Facility, focusing on prisoners who are about to be released back into their communities. The facility will provide education, vocational skills and life skills, which will help them successfully re-enter and integrate into society as productive citizens.
During the news conference announcing the initiative, Rauner commented about the “revolving door” that is the current criminal justice system, and how it needs to change, stating that an almost 50 percent recidivism rate is unacceptable, and that society needs to give offenders a real shot at a second chance. “After somebody has been punished for a crime, we can keep our communities safer. We can reduce crime, if we give them skills so that they’re not right back doing illegal things again,” he said. “They have served their time, they have served their sentence. They need a viable second chance.”
Support has also been garnered for this reform from senators who applaud not only the positive changes to criminal justice, but for the jobs that will be created by opening the facility, including correctional, educational, and rehabilitative positions.
It was also announced at the news conference that the roundhouse – F House — at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet would be closed. Built in 1922, the facility is deteriorating, has long been considered a safety hazard to both prisoners and correctional officers, and was one of the costliest facilities to operate. The closure, which was finalized at the very end of November, will save money from its deferred maintenance costs. This was the only roundhouse still in use in the United States, and conditions have been heavily criticized. Prisoners and officers have been relocated to other facilities. The roundhouse itself will likely be retained for its historical significance.
Illinois Department of Corrections offers a number of other programs for incarcerated individuals including the Incarcerated Veterans Transition Program which assists with obtaining VA benefits, resume and interview workshops, and addresses critical housing needs with Project CHILD and transitional housing units, which include programming to address issues such as anger management, socialization and family reunification. A variety of educational and vocational programs are also available, including educational assessments, basic literacy and math skills, GED instructional programs, and programs focusing on food service, auto body, horticulture and cosmetology.
While these moves are applauded, and are making good strides toward reform, there is room for more. Addressing issues that lead to crimes before they are committed, and taking root issues into account during sentencing and not just during incarceration and upon re-entry, is crucial to help with the reduction in mass incarceration. There are calls to reduce mandatory minimum sentencing, and to seek alternatives to incarceration at the outset.
In the meantime, however, other states should look at Illinois for examples of successful programs that can help to slow down or eliminate the criminal justice system’s “revolving door” through programs that aim to ensure smooth re-entry into society for former prisoners, and ultimately result in safer and more productive communities.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com