State of the State: Policy Change Could Bring Needed Reform to Corrections

Sep 1, 2013

Jamey Dunn
Credit 2014 / WUIS/Illinois Issues
The Illinois Department of Corrections is in the early stages of rolling out a new systemwide policy that advocates say could be one of the biggest reforms in the agency in recent history.


The John Howard Association, a Chicago-based prison watchdog group, lays out the problems facing the state’s correction system in a recent report: “Illinois has two public safety problems. It has one of the most crowded adult prison systems in the United States, and despite spending $1.3 billion annually on the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), there are not enough resources to effectively house, supervise and provide rehabilitative programming to the approximately 49,000 men and women who are in state prisons or the additional 25,000 who are on Mandatory Supervised Release under IDOC’s Parole Division.”

The state has too little money and too little space to handle all the prisoners and parolees for which it is responsible. Sounds like a couple of pretty basic problems, but they lead to lots of other concerns varying from uncomfortable to dangerous. Prisoners are being housed in gyms, and reports of assaults, inmates being murdered and guards being attacked keep filtering out of facilities. The quality of health care has been the subject of several lawsuits, as well as fodder for investigative reporters. 

So if you are making the decision in Illinois, how do you handle those two basic problems of not enough space and not enough funds? Do you quietly start releasing prisoners who have little time to serve to save the cost of housing them? When Gov. Pat Quinn gave that a shot, the lack of transparency about the plan got him the nearest he has been to a true scandal during his tenure as governor. And rightly so. The people of the state deserve to know about policies that affect public safety, and local law enforcement officials should be notified when offenders return to their jurisdictions. 

Do you do nothing and hope for Illinois’ budget situation to improve so you can build more facilities and better fund programming, such as addiction treatment and education, for offenders? Illinois’ budget is hardly on stable ground, and money-saving changes to public employee pensions, even if they pass in the near future, will still have to survive a court challenge. The state has shut down prisons recently, and during the budget negotiations this year, there was talk of closing more. If you do nothing, Illinois may go the way of California, where that state’s supreme court ordered that thousands of prisoners be released or returned to local law enforcement to deal with. The court ruled that conditions in the state’s prison system were unconstitutional, in part because of the lack of adequate health care. 

Another option would be to look at what you do and why you do it, and try to make the most of the resources that you have. That is the premise behind a new program that the Illinois Department of Corrections is starting to implement. It is known as a Risk Assets Needs Assessment. The new policy was part of a law passed in 2009 that was meant to cut down on recidivism. 

When inmates come into the system, most of the decisions about what their life behind bars is like — the security level of prison they go to, the kind of programming they get — is based on the offense that landed them there. 

At face value, that seems to make sense. But Illinois Department of Corrections Assistant Director Gladyse Taylor gives an example of why it might not be effective. Taylor says prisoners who have committed drug offenses get drug counseling. But selling drugs does not necessarily mean an offender was using drugs. “So you’ve got a lot of possession offenders that may be filtered for treatment and education, and that’s not really what they need. It is a question of economics for them.” Meanwhile, another prisoner who is behind bars for a burglary committed to support a drug habit may not end up in treatment. 

Once the new system is fully in place, offenders would be screened when they enter the criminal justice system, at the corrections department or possibly even before. The screenings would assess the risk associated with the prisoner, such as the likelihood of violent behavior while incarcerated and whether the inmate would be likely to reoffend. The screenings would consider a wide range of issues, including the inmate’s medical condition, mental health, level of aggression and family situation. Then, the decision of where to house the inmate and a plan to rehabilitate will be based on the profile created of each individual. Inmates’ needs, such as mental health treatment or vocational training, will be prioritized. Inmates’ assets would also be considered. For example, an inmate with a high level of education might be asked to put it to use while in the state’s custody. Taylor says the new assessments will not just focus on inmates’ issues or needs but will also ask, “How can we engage their strengths?”

The idea is to give each inmate what he or she needs the most and not spend money on unnecessary or less-than-effective programming. All of this would be done with an eye toward reducing the chances that each inmate would reoffend. Information profiles and rehabilitation plans would also follow parolees through the parole process. 

Recent upgrades in technology at Corrections make implementing the new system possible. “The beauty of it is that parallel to this process, we’re also updating the offender management [computer] system,” Taylor says. One of the major challenges to staff was the inability to easily share information about prisoners. But the department now is using a Web-based application that will allow prisoner profiles to be shared across facilities and even with community care providers working with parolees after their release. She says that before the change, information about each prisoner was spread out across several systems that could only be viewed one at a time. The upgrade will let department personnel see all the info they have on each inmate at once when they view that inmate’s profile. “Basically, you can go look into anything you want regarding an offender,” she says. “We’re building a completely integrated system.” 

Taylor says the new system and the data collection involved with it can eventually be used to evaluate the effectiveness of programming. Corrections will be able to determine if certain offerings are failing to bring down recidivism rates by tracking people who took those programs. “Ideally, we want to be able to go back and build collaborations, both with the courts and even the local county jails.” If they end up back in jail, and all goes right with the new system, the department will know. “Programs exist because either they have historically existed or someone decided that this is the most effective at reducing recidivism,” Taylor says. With the right statistics, Corrections can find out if they actually do by keeping a version of a graduation rate for each one. If a lot of people who went through a certain program don’t come back, it may be worth hanging onto — possibly even expanding. 

“It’s counter, I think, to the way the justice system has tended to work for the last 40 years,” says John Howard Association executive director John Maki. The association recently released a report on the new system. “Gut-level thinking and intuitive reactions are really what has guided the criminal justice system for the last 40 years,” Maki says.

Maki says Corrections’ goal with prisoners should be to cut their odds at recidivism, or at the very least do no harm because most of them are coming back to society. “I think most people think about prisons as these places that we send people to. Prisons are places where people leave from in massive, massive numbers.” And the current conditions in the state’s prisons likely aren’t helping matters. From the association’s report: “Every year, Illinois releases more than 30,000 people from its prisons. While there is no evidence to suggest that exposure to harsh and overcrowded conditions makes inmates less likely to commit new crimes, research has shown that these kinds of environments can make inmates worse and more likely to reoffend when they are released.” 

Maki and other advocates are thrilled that the department is moving toward an evidence-based system. “We think this is the most exciting and ambitious reform inside DOC maybe ever.” He says that the results from other states that have adopted similar systems show that if the department does a good job of rolling this out and sticking to it, recidivism, which is now about 47 percent, will go down. 

Corrections staff will begin training for the new system in November. The training is expected to last until January. After that, the department will start screening prisoners slated to leave the system in six months and then work its way back to new inmates. Taylor estimates that the system could be completely up and running in 2015. Both Taylor and Maki say that one of the most important components would be proper training and acceptance of the changes from staff. “It is a huge cultural shift for the Department of Corrections and for the community, as well,” Taylor says. She says she already has “buy-in” from law enforcement officials in many counties, including Cook. 

Maki says: “One of the challenges that DOC has — and this is not a challenge it has given itself; this is a challenge that has been foisted upon it — it has to be all things to all people.”

Taylor agrees. “The reality is that it’s failures of social services, education, family breakdown, and these are the same things that we have to treat.” While Corrections in its current form cannot really pull off being all things to all people — waiting lists for programming are often long, and overcrowding has left many inmates with few chances for much development behind bars — hopefully a system that is based on data will help it use its limited resources as wisely as possible. 

Illinois Issues, September 2013