U.S. Attorney Lewis: National Reentry Week Editorial
Our country has more than two million people in state and federal prisons and jails. We have 5% of the world’s population, and 25% of the world’s prisoners. We have the highest percentage of people in prison in the world—although our people are certainly just as law-abiding as others. And our prisons have disproportionate populations of people of color. We initiated this “spike” in imprisonment in the 1980s, and we--liberal, moderate and conservative--are beginning to understand the social and economic consequences of 35 years of reliance on incarceration.
The Illinois Department of Corrections has about 50,000 people in prison, plus nearly 30,000 out on supervision. Each year, approximately 30,000 are newly incarcerated and 30,000 are released. Almost all prisoners will be released at some point, sooner or later; many are re-arrested within six months, and about half return to prison within three years.
Our criminal justice system involves a lot of people. If we care about people in our community, we ought to care about our use of imprisonment—and about people who are released.
How? I have two suggestions and one prediction.
First, I suggest increased use of alternatives to prison: If we strengthen our state drug courts, our federal Pretrial Alternatives to Detention Initiative (“PADI”), and similar programs, we can intercept non-violent people with lower-level offenses, if they are addicted. We can give them a carefully-conditioned chance to turn their lives around, and they can avoid time in prison--if they prove that they can succeed. In PADI, almost 90% of the addicted defendants turn their lives around, and this saves about $1 million per year in cost of incarceration. For these people, the alternative to prison works better than prison itself.
Second, I suggest realistic assistance with re-entry, when people are released. If we assist re-entry efforts already underway in our communities, we may be able to improve the results.
For example, Peoria has an ELITE program that trains, prepares and places ex-offenders with worthwhile employment; a five-year study of federal prisoners found that 93% stayed out of prison, if they had employment. I am not suggesting either extreme—no employment for former prisoners, or priority for employment—but I am suggesting practical access to job-training and employment, if a person can learn the skills that employers need. If a former prisoner succeeds, it helps that individual, that family, that neighborhood, that community.
Finally, I offer my experience and my prediction: I’ve been talking to more re-entry groups and doing more re-entry activities. When I first met the Warden at FCI Pekin, we spent all our time talking about re-entry; federal prosecutors and prison wardens share real concern for the lives and futures of people who go through the prison system.
As individuals and as a community, we are learning to look more closely at our entire criminal justice system; we are struggling to become wiser about what helps individuals and what helps communities. My prediction is that we will learn to care - and act - more thoughtfully, and this will be to our benefit.