Illinois has officially thrown its hat in the ring to take on one of the state’s most entrenched institutions – prisons. These days, it seems that nearly everyone agrees that reducing incarceration is necessary, whether for financial, social, or political reasons. But as we attempt to reverse mass incarceration, we could learn an important lesson from our history by asking – how do we avoid the mistakes made with deinstitutionalization?


In an unprecedented move, Gov. Bruce Rauner has tasked the newly formed Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform with reducing the Illinois prison population by 25 percent in the next decade. Across the U.S., similarly ambitious goals are gaining prominence. California is under a federal court order to decrease its prison census by 30,000 in just two years. Unlikely allies Van Jones and Newt Gingrich are urging both sides of the political aisle to correct the failures of the U.S. prison system, and Jones’ cut 50 initiative promotes reducing the number of people in jails and prisons by 50 percent over the next 10 years. Not to be outdone, the ACLU has received a $50 million grant to cut the incarcerated population in half by 2020.

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy set a similarly bold goal for the deinstitutionalization of state hospitals and asylums. Announcing the Community Mental Health Centers Act, Kennedy claimed that the nation could reduce the number of people with mental illness in these facilities by 50 percent within a decade or two. Remarkably, this goal was met – from 1965 to 1975, the state hospital population dropped by nearly 60 percent and continued to plummet for the next 20 years. Based on Kennedy’s stated objective, the deinstitutionalization movement had achieved success.

But was deinstitutionalization actually successful? Decades of hindsight and critique would echo a resounding “No!” In Illinois and across the country, mental health systems are not able to meet the treatment needs of the communities they serve. Today, people with mental illness are more likely to be found in jails and prisons than in psychiatric hospitals. In fact, the Cook County Jail is the largest mental health facility in the state, perhaps the entire country. Over 25 percent of the nation’s homeless population has a serious mental illness. This is certainly not a picture of what Kennedy and others envisioned when they advocated for aggressive deinstitutionalization.

Looking back, there is little doubt that rapid deinstitutionalization without sufficient development of effective community-based alternatives was a key contributor to the movement’s failings.

As leaders announce bold benchmarks for reversing mass incarceration, attention must be paid to the complex needs of people who are incarcerated. Most individuals languishing in jails and prisons are poor and will return to communities with scarce resources and employment opportunities. Many suffer with complicated substance abuse and mental health disorders. Two-thirds of released prisoners are rearrested for a new crime within three years.

Solving these problems is not a quick and easy endeavor. While aiming for incarceration reductions, are we willing to invest in communities to support those being released from prisons and jails, and to keep others from entering them? Are we ready to acknowledge that our entire criminal justice system needs to be transformed to one that is more responsible and effective? If not, it is unlikely that rapid, drastic cuts in incarceration will last.

Our state and nation are in the midst of a historic moment in which we could fundamentally change the function and use of incarceration. But a “race” to decarcerate should not mean sacrificing comprehensive and well-planned solutions. We’ve been down that road before. If we meet ambitious goals of incarceration reduction but do not do so in ways that are effective, sustainable, and socially just, we will have missed one of the greatest opportunities of our generation.

Matthew Epperson is an assistant professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.

Carrie Pettus-Davis is an assistant professor at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis.