Jan. 21, 2013 Pantagraph
BLOOMINGTON — Positive change in the nation’s prison system can only take place when people set aside commonly held misconceptions about crime and punishment, the leader of a prison watchdog group told an audience gathered for a Martin Luther King Day event at Illinois Wesleyan University.
The assumption that punishment must be prison ignores the reality that incarceration is just one method of dealing with offenders, a means that often produces expensive and ineffective results, said John Maki, executive of the John Howard Association of Illinois.
“Prison is good for incapacitation but not good at deterring crime or rehabilitation,” said Maki.
The director of the Chicago-based group that monitors the state’s prisons and issues reports and recommendations was joined at the Hansen Student Center by Bob Sutherland with the Central Illinois Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Sutherland spoke on progressive reforms to the local criminal justice system.
The notion that prisoners are either monsters or saints adds to the reluctance by policymakers to reform a system that now holds 2.3 million people behind bars in the U.S., an incarceration rate that tops any other country in the world, said Maki. The JHA mission to study and reflect on prison conditions is based on the philosophy that “no one is reducible to the worst thing they’ve done,” said Maki.
Maki applauded McLean County Sheriff Mike Emery for “doing some phenomenal things” to address the needs of mentally ill inmates housed at the McLean County jail. Emery’s initiative is part of the work of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to consider issues within the local justice system, including the jail population.
Sutherland recounted the 15-year endeavor by the ACLU, the League of Women Voters and others to find a solution to chronic overcrowding at the jail. A study spearheaded by Emery with cooperation from other county officials in 2009 resulted in changes that have kept the 241-bed jail population in check and the county from housing any inmates in neighboring jails for more than a year.
One of the goals of the CJCC, founded in 2009, was to examine who should be incarcerated, said Sutherland.
Two McLean County programs — the Recovery Court and Drug Court for defendants with mental health and substance abuse issues — offer options other than jail sentences, noted Sutherland. Those options, combined with educational opportunities available for jail inmates, can reduce the number of repeat offenders, said Sutherland, who also serves as a member of the CJCC.
“If we shun them or turn our backs on them, we are simply inviting a downward spiral that will result in recidivism,” he said.