Each year over 30,000 Illinois residents are released from the Illinois Department of Corrections, with nearly all returning to the same economically depressed communities in which they resided before their incarceration. Now over one million Illinoisans have some form of criminal record, which routinely interferes with one’s ability to take advantage of employment, housing and educational opportunities. That lack of access can create social and economic circumstances that result in illegal behavior. Consequently, nearly 50% of individuals released from Illinois Department of Corrections return to prison within three years, and fewer than 2% of the 425,000 individuals released between 1999 and 2015 have obtained and held a taxpaying job for two consecutive years after their release. Improving employment outcomes for people with criminal records through employment training and job assistance outside of prisons in the community is one of the most successful methods of improving the reentry of returning citizens to their communities and reducing recidivism.
How can the State of Illinois remove barriers in housing, education and employment for previously incarcerated individuals and reduce the recidivism rate? What programs would you support? Would you invest in skills training, re-entry services, and transportation for people with records to reduce unemployment, violence and poverty?
In Illinois, there are successful programs for assisting returning citizens in reentering civilian life while reducing their risk of re-entering the criminal justice system. Programs like Redeploy Illinois, Safer Foundation, and A Safe Haven. In my Department of Corrections, I will appoint a dedicated advisor to coordinate our philanthropic, nonprofit, and public services into comprehensive rehabilitation program for our prison population.
Our Illinois Department of Correction has made significant strides in conducting risk evaluation. We can identify a significant number of offenders within our prison population who do not pose a significant risk to our communities. If we consider someone who we expect to jail for 35+ years but poses no significant threat, there is a clear argument toward redirecting those resources toward restorative justice. Cook County Jails alone went from 11,000 inmates to 7,350, and they believe they can drive down their population even further, and we should help them do so if we want to build on this progress.
Bail reform is key to driving down our jail population. Only 3-4% of arrested actually go to jail, the rest sit around waiting to get tried. But for the population that does, we can successfully move ex-offenders away from our criminal justice system to civilian life if we train them for employment, set them up with a job, assist them with affordable housing and enroll them in healthcare.
For those offenders who enter into our jails, we should have in place rehabilitation programs that prepare them to leave prison and become productive citizens. As I’ve mentioned before, I believe our Department of Corrections is not so much about correcting bad behavior, but about correcting our broken social safety net. Our prisons need to have in place mental health services, social and emotional learning programs, basic education courses, and certification and job training programs.
For those who successfully leave our prison system, we should have a pipeline ready for them that guides them toward housing, employment and healthcare. We can build on the great work of organizations and programs like CTA’s Second Chance, Faith in Place, Safer Foundation and Safe Haven to expand their good work into an instituted and systematic program across our jail system. Additionally, the state of Illinois has thousands of contractors. We can work with our contractors to identify a set aside of employment roles for ex-offenders and enroll them in Medicaid if employer health care isn’t available. In terms of housing, we need to build more affordable housing. For developers who receive state aid, we should trade public assistance invested in the developments for affordable rental units made available to ex-offenders who need assistance after leaving jail. We also need to lighten our regulations, which inhibit ex-offenders from staying in our public housing developments.
We should update our thinking from 100 years ago. Just as Frederick Douglas said, it’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.
The overwhelming majority of people in prison will be released and will return to their communities. But the sad truth is that many of those individuals will end up back in prison. Roughly half of those released from an Illinois prison will return within three years. This is what happens when we do not prioritize rehabilitation and re-entry services. Too many formerly incarcerated people are returning to communities without restored social connections, economic opportunity, and access to affordable housing. Without that support, they are more likely to end up back in prison.
Our state government should partner with communities to help people released from prison thrive. We need to build strong social connections and create economic opportunity in our communities and that can’t just start when people are released. It means rehabilitative services, job training, and re-entry services that begin in prison and extend after release.
Expanding these programs in our prisons and in our communities will build that bridge between incarceration and re-entry. It will connect individuals to the social and economic opportunities they need to thrive and reduce recidivism. It’s a long-term investment in our state that will help lower future incarceration costs, which currently cost over $23,000 per inmate. Let’s spend money educating instead of incarcerating Illinoisans.
- Prioritize rehabilitation services in prisons to reduce recidivism after release:
- Connect people in prison early with evidence-based rehabilitative services including job training, education, mental health and substance abuse treatment.
- Encourage and facilitate positive relationships between people in prison, their families, and their communities to reduce the likelihood of recidivism after release.
- Create economic opportunity and strengthen our communities:
- Create vibrant and thriving communities by investing in quality education, including preschool and quality childcare.
- Ensure community business owners and entrepreneurs have access to the capital, training, and mentorship they need to thrive.
- Reduce barriers to employment and expand community-based learning opportunities so people can build self-sufficient lives.
- Expand stable housing and healthcare in all of our communities.
- Help Illinoisans safely re-enter the workforce via a state re-entry employment program designed to place qualified people in state positions.
We should closely examine how to address and provide relief from the debt burden faced by individuals within the criminal justice system. In 2016, I passed legislation, vetoed by Governor Rauner, to ban the Department of Corrections from collecting reimbursements for incarceration costs from individuals exiting the system. I’ve also supported professional licensing reform to create opportunities for previously incarcerated individuals and will look for opportunities to expand on these efforts.
As governor, I would limit the use of late fees and charging of interest on debt, and ban the extension of probation or supervision for non-payment of debt. I would also end the practice of revoking drivers’ or professional licenses for some minor offenses. Lastly, the previously incarcerated experience undue roadblocks in accessing capital, especially those who live in communities facing disinvestment. We should explore and create innovative programs to make sure these individuals and communities get the financial investment they deserve. We should also provide training and education to incarcerated people and consider ways to expand access to housing, including “banning the box” for rental applications and funding housing support upon release.