Statement on State's Attorney Alvarez's Policy Change

JHA supports Cook County policy shift on diverting low welve drug offenses from criminal prosecution

Founded in 1901, the John Howard Association (JHA) is Illinois’ only non-partisan prison watchdog and justice reform advocate. Our mission is to achieve a fair, humane, and effective criminal justice system by promoting adult and juvenile prison reform, leading to successful re-integration and enhanced community safety. JHA advocates for a smaller, rehabilitative system that works to address the myriad needs of inmates so that they may return to society as productive citizens, enhancing public safety and ensuring the wise investment of our limited criminal justice resources.

JHA applauds Illinois’ efforts to reform both our criminal justice and prison systems, at both the local and state levels. As Illinois’ largest county, housing the nation’s largest jail which is also the gateway to the largest percentage of inmates entering the Illinois state prison system, what happens in Cook County has an enormous impact on Chicago, Illinois, and the entire country. Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s decision to stop prosecuting the majority of misdemeanor marijuana charges and to direct non violent drug inmates to drug treatment as opposed to incarceration is a welcome and necessary policy change, and a critically important step in achieving much needed justice system reform. In addition, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s plan to divert low level juvenile drug inmates to community-based service providers for education and mentoring will go a long way towards improving outcomes for drug-involved youth by keeping them out of state custody, which has proven to increase a youth’s likelihood of recidivism and long term engagement in the criminal justice system.

Earlier this year Governor Bruce Rauner made the bold commitment to reduce Illinois’ prison population by 25 percent in ten years. Policies that address the front end of our system by reducing prosecutions and penalties for low-level offenses, like the policy announced on Monday by State’s Attorney Alvarez, are critical to achieving this important goal. These policy changes also more faithfully adhere to the principles embedded in the Illinois Constitution: “All penalties shall be determined both according to the seriousness of the offense and with the objective of restoring the inmate to useful citizenship.” (Article I, Sec. 11). As Illinois begins to address the impact of mass incarceration and works to turn the page on this regrettable chapter in our state’s and nation’s history, reducing the number of individuals placed in corrective custody is vitally important.

Reducing incarceration will not be easy. It will require planning and a substantial investment of time, effort, and money. We must identify those people who can be safely diverted from our jails and prisons, and direct them to much needed community-based services and supports rather than warehousing them in correctional institutions. Mental health and substance abuse treatment, education, job skills training, and housing and employment assistance are only some of the important community-based supports that must be funded to ensure that low level drug inmates stay out of prison where they have little chance of successful rehabilitation. Illinois must also invest in providing critical services and supports to poor, vulnerable, and disenfranchised citizens before they ever enter into the justice system if we are to save money and lives.

More can and should be done to divert low-level inmates from jail and prison While State’s Attorney Alvarez’s change in policy on marijuana prosecutions is commendable, other steps must be undertaken by leaders, legislators and policy makers to limit the number of people entering our prison system, including reducing the penalties for drug offenses, eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and sentencing enhancements for many criminal offenses, and increasing the number and type of non-violent offenses eligible for diversion instead of incarceration.

Limiting the prosecution of low level drug inmates and directing them to community services and treatment outside the criminal justice system is smart policy. JHA applauds this shift. At the same time, we recognize that without a commitment to fully fund necessary treatment and community resources for people diverted from jail and prison, this policy cannot succeed. Ultimately, front end criminal justice policy reforms must be backed up by a commitment to provide social, medical, mental health, education and economic and employment resources to people in need in our communities.

The time is right to undertake substantial changes to significantly reduce our jail and prison populations. Legal reforms are needed throughout our system. However, an important, essential step in ending mass incarceration must also include addressing the needs of the individuals caught up in ongoing cycles of poverty, drug addiction, mental illness, joblessness and illiteracy that so often lead to criminal justice involvement. State’s Attorney Alvarez’s policy change on prosecutions for marijuana possession represents a critical move towards increasing in the effectiveness, fairness, safety, and humane treatment of our criminal justice system and we praise her for her efforts.

Elliana Given2015