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Quinn's Plan to Close Prisons Could Increase Overcrowding

September 19, 2011

CHICAGO - Experts predict that Illinois Governor Pat Quinn's plan to close two correctional facilities to help balance the budget could worsen the current problem of prison overcrowding. According to John Maki, director of the John Howard Association, a long-time prison reform advocacy group, there were about 7,000 people locked up in Illinois in the late 1970s. Today, nearly 50,000 inmates are squeezed into a system designed for about 33,000.

Maki says that means the Governor has some decisions to make about unintended consequences.

"If there is going to be a prison closed, it needs to be accompanied by a significant reduction in population and some kind of investment in community treatment programs which have been proven to reduce recidivism and crime."

Maki says part of the problem is that the state locks up non-violent drug offenders who could be put on electronic monitoring and treated in their communities.

A recent state study found African Americans in Illinois five times as likely to be put in prison for drug offenses as whites.

Jane Otte, executive director of Prisoner and Family Ministry at Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, says she sees that all the time. Otte calls it "the disproportionate effect of drug laws on minorities."

"We need to incarcerate the people who are violent, but as for people who are involved in addiction, we don't need to be paying $30,000 a year to incarcerate them."

Otte says programs that help ex-offenders become contributing members of their communities keep them from becoming repeat offenders, adding that the situation of children with locked-up parents is especially hard.

"We want to take off the fear and shame, particularly shame that the children bear because of the incarceration of their parents."

For those who advocate budget cuts and a "get tough on crime" approach, John Maki answers that getting tough on crime means effective prison systems.

"If research shows, which it does, that incarcerating low-level offenders only makes them worse and in a very expensive way of doing that, then let's change our practice."

Maki says he's not talking about the early release of violent criminals, who need to stay locked up. But with the state spending more than $1 billion a year on prisons, he says, examining approaches that work should be a priority.

Mary Anne Meyers, Public News Service - IL