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Though controversial, prison reform a necessity

Razor wire tops fence Illinois Youth Center Murphysboro.  |  Neil Steinberg~Sun-Times

Razor wire tops the fence at the Illinois Youth Center at Murphysboro. | Neil Steinberg~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 11, 2013 6:46AM

Every discussion of state government today revolves around the public pension funds stalemate, a crisis that has sucked the air out of the State Capitol.

Yet, the wheels of state government keep churning, and there are even sound policy decisions being made and executed.

After extended litigation and arbitration, the state has closed the Murphysboro juvenile prison, and another youth prison in Joliet is scheduled to close this month. These decisions upset public employee union leaders and some residents near those prisons, but the closures will save millions of dollars — money the state should use to expand effective programs to youth in prison, in the community to divert them from prison, and to youth released from prison to prevent their return.

Much remains to be done. The six remaining youth prisons still have excess capacity and need to do a better job of providing mental health services and rehabilitation. However, the leadership of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice is addressing this and making progress in real rehabilitation, as are several counties taking advantage of state assistance through programs, like Redeploy Illinois, to provide counseling and other services locally to youth who otherwise would be sent away to state prisons. Consequently, the number of incarcerated youth has dropped from about 1,600 in 2005 to fewer than 900 today.

On the adult side of the prison system, crowded conditions have been an impediment to innovation.

Cook County government, recognizing that rehabilitation costs less than incarceration, is providing diversion programs to non-violent youth. New bond programs for adults, in jail at great expense to taxpayers while awaiting trial, accelerate release of non-violent people to their families.

Probably most significantly, policymakers worked for months fine-tuning a new assessment instrument to evaluate adults coming into and leaving the justice system. Specially tailored for Illinois, it is used to identify who should be incarcerated, what treatment people should receive, and what other support might be provided to help them succeed when they leave prison. A new, limited early release law has given Gov. Quinn clear authority and standards to release non-violent prisoners who are not a threat to public safety, and this tool can provide assurance that his Correction’s Department does it successfully.

If crowding conditions in adult prisons can be eliminated, there will be opportunities for even more innovation leading to cost savings and rehabilitation instead of the warehousing.

While these sensible reforms will save the state millions of dollars and improve public safety, they have required political courage. Gov. Quinn, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and many in the legislative branches of state and county governments concluded that the evidence that these reforms would work outweighed any political risk on the hot button issue of prison reform. It is reassuring to be able to applaud that.

Esther Franco-Payne is program director for the Justice and Violence Initiative at Metropolis Strategies. She is also a member of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission and recently was named by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle to serve on her seven-member Violence Prevention, Intervention and Reduction Advisory Committee.

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