Editor's note: This is part of a series of stories The Pantagraph will publish on the challenges facing people after their release from prison, including issues in housing and employment, and re-entry efforts at the state and federal levels.
NORMAL — Individuals returning to the community from prison have about a 50 percent chance of success as they navigate a system with few options for housing, employment and support, according to speakers at Thursday's Central Illinois Offender Reentry Symposium.
Some of the strongest calls for more services for former offenders were offered by speakers who have worked in the criminal justice system.
Keynote speaker Rodger Heaton, who serves as the state's director of public safety and is a homeland security adviser to the governor, admitted he spent little time during his 18 years as a federal prosecutor "reflecting on what happens to the guy once he's finished his sentence."
Former McLean County Sheriff Mike Emery, who now serves as law enforcement coordinator for the U.S. attorney for the Central District of Illinois, told the audience at Illinois State University's Bone Student Center that he spent his first 25 years with the county enforcing the law before he was elected sheriff in 2006 and inherited an overcrowded, inefficient jail.
Retired Chief Judge Elizabeth Robb spent more than two decades on the bench in the 11th Judicial Circuit on cases that sometimes ended with a prison sentence.
Heaton noted that about 30,000 of the state's 48,000 inmates will return to their communities annually. The failure of about half of those inmates to stay out of prison costs taxpayers about $40 million each year, said Heaton.
Drawing on his work with the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform, Heaton said extensive change is needed to a system that offers little to those leaving prison. Increased access to mental health and substance services is critical, said Heaton, "otherwise we'll make our own contribution to the revolving door."
One of committee's recommendations is a review of the restrictions on 40-plus professional licenses available to felons in Illinois. Heaton pointed to the irony that the Department of Corrections offers job training for barbers and manicurists — two professions that were barred to felons.
Emery shared his experience with helping to form the McLean County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council as an example of the positive results that can be realized when all the players in the justice system come together. Initially formed to address jail overcrowding that cost the county over $700,000 in 2008, the CJCC spearheaded changes that essentially eliminated by 2012 the cost of housing inmates elsewhere.
"We adopted the belief that people should be in jail because we're afraid of them and not because we're mad at them," said Emery.
Robb, who also served on the state reform commission, recalled her feelings when sentencing a person to prison.
"In my mind that was a sentence to be warehoused," said Robb. With few resources available, "there is not much hope when you are released," said the retired judge.
Robb said she is encouraged by the governor's directive to the reform commission to develop a plan to reduce the state's prison population by 25 percent by 2015.
The tough challenge of housing is being addressed by two agencies represented at the seminar.
Kelly Kleiman, project manager with BOTEC Analysis, is looking for apartments for 30 state inmates in Peoria and 30 in Rockford. The inmates will be moved to the Hill and East Moline Correctional Centers for 90 days where they will prepare for their transfer to apartments and a program designed to help them develop living skills and find employment before their release.
Jim Simkins, residential re-entry director with Human Service Center, assists federal inmates integrating back into the community. The Peoria center is one of four in Illinois to provide housing for up to six months.
The event was organized by ISU associate professor Jeff Walsh and sponsored by ISU's department of criminal justice sciences and Criminal Justice Association.