We need to Focus on Policy, not Politics

November 8, 2016:  We need to Focus on Policy not Politics

As we await the results of the 2016 elections, it is time for Illinois to turn our focus from politics to policy. Regardless of who will be taking office at the federal, state and county levels come January 2017, criminal justice system reform must be a priority. In order to create real change we must address the underlying issues that plague our communities and justice system, beginning with endemic racism and poverty, inadequate access to education, lack of community infrastructure and opportunity, and recognize, diagnose and treat mental health and substance abuse issues as the public health problems that they are.

Despite party affiliation or partisan identification, many of our leaders recognize the importance of addressing the root causes of crime, right sizing our prison system, and using practices that will improve society, not worsen it. What does that look like? It starts with giving communities and individuals opportunity, repairing relationships and building trust between law enforcement and citizens, and using prison as a last resort for those who cannot be supervised in their communities. It means helping those who have committed crimes to be and do better in the future so that they can break out of the cycle of incarceration – we can do this by giving prisoners treatment, education, job skills, and a state ID card upon release. We can do this by using smart policies that recognize that the more people that hold jobs and pay taxes, the fewer people that languish in our prisons, the better off we all are.

Let’s not let election hype derail us from focusing on the important work that needs to be done. Illinois must increase investments in new ways of diverting people from the justice system and providing meaningful programs to those who are necessarily incarcerated. We must allow returning citizens to become enfranchised and productive by ensuring they have relevant skills and that there are available jobs. We must critically evaluate why people go to prison and how long they should be there, which means facing the difficult truth that our current over use of prison does not lessen violence or make us more safe. If we want to be safer, we have to be smarter. We must use research, data and evidence to give our incarcerated population the programming that is deemed necessary for the length of time proven to work. We must treat incarcerated people with dignity and respect. We must invest in community based education, treatment and training - giving people the help they need closer to home has been shown to work far better than incarceration in terms of successful social reintegration and reduced likelihood to recidivate.

From broad principles of crime and punishment to specific correctional policy and practices, there is much work to be done - let’s not lose time focusing on partisan divides when we can concentrate our efforts on needed reform.

Jennifer Vollen-Katz
Executive Director
John Howard Association