At the close of the Adult Redeploy Illinois (ARI) 2017 All Sites Summit, a policy conversation was convened to present perspectives on the state of the Illinois criminal justice system, the public’s rapidly changing opinion on prisoner rehabilitation, and the effect of the current political climate on reform efforts. Moderated by Brian Mackey of NPR Illinois, the panel was comprised of retired Judge Elizabeth Robb, State’s Attorney Joe Bruscato of Winnebago County, and college student and ARI graduate Tonya Veenstra.
Veenstra, a graduate and outspoken supporter of ARI’s diversion programs, spoke to the harsh realities of substance abuse treatment in prisons. She stated, “I was a part of mass incarceration and was part of treatment services in jail… and I can tell you that it does not work. Our prisons are all overcrowded and 83% are suffering from substance abuse and 17% receive treatment.” When these untreated inmates leave prisons and attempt to reintegrate into society, there is a high likelihood of recidivism.
ARI offered Veenstra the opportunity to break from the cycle of addiction and incarceration. The entire panel commended the ARI network’s success in diverting over 3,000 people from state prison and spoke to the importance of an increased budget to expand and implement ARI programming across the state.
Judge Elizabeth Robb (Ret.), a member of the Illinois Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform, cited the commission’s goal of funding vital programs like ARI to achieve Governor Rauner’s goal of decreasing Illinois’ prison population by 25% by 2025. Robb emphasized, “Do not just fund what sounds good, fund what works and demand that all those service agencies who receive funding from the state show that what they are using is evidence-based.”
This issue of smart investment of justice dollars is of particular importance in Illinois since state resources are scarce and budgeting is a political issue. Brian Mackey listed the hyper-politicization of justice issues on both the federal and state level, historical and present, as a key threat to criminal justice system reform but noted recent developments of bipartisan agreement. Mackey, a veteran reporter for NPR Illinois, stated, “It started in the House in the Criminal Justice Committee where people would start asking ‘What is your evidence?’ when they would want to ratchet up a penalty. In bumping a Class 3 to a Class 2, what is your evidence that that will make people any safer and improve justice outcomes?”
Public opinion has been shifting away from deterrence and retribution to rehabilitation over the last decade, and Brian Mackey referenced a recent survey of Illinois crime victims showing that a majority of victims support proposals to reform the criminal justice system and shift investments away from prisons. Policy-makers are beginning to acknowledge their constituents’ changing views and are willing to make strides toward real criminal justice reform.
“We’re all citizens,” Judge Robb explained. “We’re all in this world together. What is the price of a human life? We have all seen folks who have turned around and lives are changed. This may be naïve possibly, but I think many of us believe that there is no price on changing a life for the better.”
Listen to the full conversation here >>