Editorial: Prison 'reform' can't be a revolving door

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Building No. 19 at the Vienna Correctional Center in Vienna, Ill.

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When inmates are released from an Illinois prison, they are given a bus ticket home and assigned a parole officer.

As for the other basics of a stable, law-abiding life outside prison — a job, a reliable place to live, perhaps counseling services — good luck with all that.

In the name of reform, Illinois is paroling more prison inmates, but doing a bad job of keeping them from coming back. Almost half of ex-offenders return to prison within three years.

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Programs to help them build new lives simply haven’t kept pace. On the contrary, state spending on services for ex-offenders has been cut in recent years, well before the current state budget impasse.

Our state’s leaders, both Democrats and Republicans, claim to be on the side of the angels on this one — advocating for reducing the state’s prison population — but they’re pursuing prison reform on the cheap, which is no reform at all.

Across the nation, states are trying to reduce prison populations for two reasons: To save money, and to give ex-offenders a better chance of turning their lives around. Prisons are expensive and do a bad job of rehabilitation.

But when ex-offenders are dumped back on the streets without a plan or social supports, as too often is the case in Illinois, prison reform becomes a dangerous joke. While parolees return to communities all over Illinois, a huge percentage — one in every six parolees — head to Chicago’s West Side.

As Mick Dumke of the Sun-Times reported on Sunday, the Illinois corrections and human services departments spent about $69 million in fiscal year 2014 on services for people getting out of prison. The next year, the state spent only $67 million. And since July 1 of this fiscal year, as a result of the budget standoff in Springfield, the state has spent only a paltry $418,000.

It is an ominous trend reminiscent of national efforts in the 1970s to close down big mental health hospitals, which had been rocked by scandals of patient abuse and neglect, and treat previously institutionalized people in community-based clinics. It was the right idea, except that woefully few clinics were funded and opened. People who had serious mental health struggles wound up living on the streets. They began to fill our jails — and do to this day.

In the past four years, Dumke reported, the prison population in Illinois has inched down from about 49,000 in 2011 to 47,000 this fall. At the same, the number of inmates released on parole has increased from 24,809 in 2011 to 28,319 this summer. Seventeen percent of those parolees live on the West Side.

Even in these difficult financial times for Illinois government, the case must be made that there is no free lunch. Illinois in the long run could save tens of millions of dollars by reducing its prison population, but only if some of that savings is churned back into support services for those diverted from incarceration or released earlier.

We have long argued for greater funding for Redeploy Illinois, the state’s most sophisticated and data-driven set of social services for non-violent adult and juvenile offenders who might otherwise be incarcerated. Because of the state’s current budget problems, some agencies are suspending Redeploy programs.

We also see wisdom in a proposal to make Pell education grants available to inmates who take courses offered in prisons by colleges and universities. Locking up a youth costs the taxpayers up to $130,000 a year, while Pell grants max out at about $6,000. Studies show that inmates who participate in education programs in prison are almost 30 percent less likely to end up back in prison.

Gov. Bruce Rauner has set an ambitious goal of reducing Illinois’ prison population by 25 percent in ten years. We’re pretty sure he has in mind a door to a better life, not a revolving door.

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