A new Illinois law, about to be signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner, will grant free state IDs to prisoners upon their release from the Illinois Department of Corrections. This, says the governor and the bill’s sponsors, will reduce the likelihood of ex-offenders returning to prison and ease integration back into society.
Perhaps it will, to a point. But recidivism is a massive problem, and one largely created by the state. Responding to it with a free identification card is like using a tea spoon to bail water from a sinking ship.
According to the Illinois Policy Institute, nearly half of the men and women released from Illinois each year are back in prison three years later. Each time this happens, it costs state residents almost $120,000 in the form of taxpayer costs, lost economic benefits, and harm to victims.
The state is mainly to blame for this sorry state of affairs. It releases prisoners with a thin hoodie, a bus ticket and a check for $10. Good luck getting on your feet with that. If you have managed to maintain a nest egg, the state may wipe it out by suing you for the cost and trouble of locking you up. If you have mental health problems, the rollback of government support for community mental health services will make it hard to find treatment.
The path to recidivism begins in prison, well before release occurs. Prison classes, activities and job training used to be a major part of incarceration, but funding for such programs has been gutted. Unnecessarily long sentences make it all the more difficult to rejoin society. Imagine looking for a job if you went to prison before the internet became a part of daily life.
The Illinois prison system throws men and women in solitary confinement for minor infractions like talking back to an officer or failing to show up for work. Empirical research shows a correlation between solitary confinement and recidivism — which isn’t exactly rocket science, given that isolation induces and exacerbates mental illness and may literally cause the brain to shrink. Sometimes, the department of corrections releases people straight out of solitary confinement onto the street, with no intervening programming. Unsurprisingly, research shows that this dangerous practice increases recidivism.
To be sure, it is sometimes necessary to incapacitate dangerous criminals for a period of time, but incarceration in the United States, which locks up more people than any other country on earth, is dangerously out of balance. Prison itself can become criminogenic. In at least some cases, imprisonment increases the chances that a person will commit another crime. More importantly, in areas with high rates of incarceration, locking more people up may produce crime because of how imprisonment affects communities — taking parents from their children, harming social structures, and reducing economic potential. It is important to get the balance right — too much incarceration may increase crime rather than curbing it.
Mass incarceration and recidivism will require bolder action than identification cards. The state needs to slash its prison population through legislation that reduces sentences and the governor’s use of his commutation power. The money saved from shuttering some prisons could be used to fund genuine rehabilitation in the ones that would remain.
David M. Shapiro is the director of appeals for the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center and a clinical assistant professor of law at Pritzker Northwestern School of Law, Chicago. He is a Public Voices Fellow.
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