CSG Midwest
Each year in Illinois, around 30,000 adults return home from state correctional facilities, many in search of jobs.

Six Questions County Leaders Need to Ask
by Risë Haneberg, Dr. Tony Fabelo, Dr. Fred Osher, and Michael Thompson

Not long ago the observation that the Los Angeles County Jail serves more people with mental illnesses than any single mental health facility in the United States elicited gasps among elected officials. Today, most county leaders are quick to point out that the large number of people with mental illnesses in their jails is nothing short of a public health crisis, and doing something about it is a top priority.

Over the past decade, police, judges, corrections administrators, public defenders, prosecutors, community-based service providers, and advocates have mobilized to better respond to people with mental illnesses. Most large urban counties, and many smaller counties, have created specialized police response programs, established programs to divert people with mental illnesses charged with low-level crimes from the justice system, launched specialized courts to meet the unique needs of defendants with mental illnesses, and embedded mental health professionals in the jail to improve the likelihood that people with mental illnesses are connected to community-based services.

CSG Midwest
Easing ex-prisoners back into civilian life helps reduce recidivism, and one step states can take is to ensure that just-released inmates have a valid state identification card. In a letter earlier this year to all 50 governors, the U.S. Department of Justice asked states to provide IDs for federal prisoners being released, and according to The Atlantic, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio are among 17 states that have had preliminary talks with federal officials about taking that step.

Last week, the Department of Justice announced it would be seeking to reduce and eventually end the practice of using privately operated prisons.  In a memo to the Bureau of Federal Prisons, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates explains that about a decade ago, the Bureau began contracting with privately operated correctional institutions to handle a fast increasing federal prison population. Now, however, the prison population has started to decline.

Over the past 20 years, violent crime* has decreased considerably – down 35 percent from 1995. The violent crime rate (number of violent crimes per 100,000 inhabitants) fell precipitously over this period, from 684.5 crimes per 100,000 inhabitants to 365.5 crimes per 100,000 inhabitants. In 2014, there were about 1.2 million violent crimes nationwide; in 1995 there were 1.8 million, despite the fact that the U.S. population grew by approximately 21 percent over this period.  

Over the last 40 years, local jails have increasingly become de facto psychiatric treatment facilities for the millions of people with mental illnesses and substance use disorders who become involved with the local criminal justice system. Counties and states are at the breaking point, many without the resources or capacity to address this population’s mental health needs while ensuring an appropriate criminal justice response and protecting public safety. The national Stepping Up movement offers state and local governments a roadmap for navigating the complicated process of addressing this urgent issue.

On April 22, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed an executive order that restores the voting and civil rights of more than 200,000 convicted felons.  The order applies to people who have completed their sentence, including any supervised release, parole or probation requirements.  

Representatives from correctional systems in 12 states came together in early March to set strategies for and share experiences related to reducing recidivism in their states and across the country. Convened by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, or BJA, and The Council of State Governments Justice Center’s National Reentry Resource Center, the 2016 Statewide Recidivism Reduction, or SRR, Forum brought together grantees of the SRR program—one of the Second Chance Act grants offered by BJA, which challenges state correctional systems and their partners to reduce recidivism and serve as models for the rest of the country. BJA officials—including Deputy Director Kristen Mahoney, Associate Deputy Director Ruby Qazilbash and Policy Advisor Andre Bethea—were on hand to discuss best practices.

Following on the heels of an active December that saw Congress avoid a government shutdown, extend tax breaks for Americans and pass education reform, there is hope that President Obama and Congress will carry this unexpected span of bipartisanship into 2016. Although impossible to know with certainty which issues will be tackled, criminal justice reform could be on the list.  

Life in prison is hard—and it’s designed to be that way. But for the 70 million Americans with a criminal record living outside prison walls, life in the community also can be pretty tough. In addition to finding stable housing, reuniting with families and addressing substance abuse issues, individuals with criminal records often face serious barriers to finding a job.

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