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CHICAGO — A 50 percent reduction in the number of women incarcerated in Illinois prisons is the goal of a new task force organized by the Women's Justice Institute.

An event is scheduled for Wednesday in Chicago to kick off the seven-year plan to cut the state's female population of about 2,100 women held in facilities in Decatur and Lincoln.

The 100-member task force of women includes officials from the Illinois Department of Corrections; formerly incarcerated women; staff from jails, prisons and the courts; social services and academia.

"Women are the fastest growing prison and jail population in the U.S. and this effort is about uniting women to redefine narratives and confront these trends," said Deanne Benos, co-founder of the Women's Justice Institute and a former state corrections official.

Benos noted the opioid epidemic in Illinois is driving an increase in the number of women entering the prison system from rural counties, including McLean County. While the overall prison numbers, including the female population, continues a downward trend, the number of women sent to prison from McLean County went from 17 in 2012 to 26 in 2017, according to the institute.

Local task force members include 11th Judicial Circuit Judge Rebecca Foley, Kara Alt, program director with YWCA Labyrinth Outreach Services to Women, Dawn Beichner, professor of criminal justice sciences at Illinois State University, and Liz Barnhart, a consultant with the Center for Court Innovation and McLean County Court Services.

Beichner said she will serve as co-director of a working group looking at issues facing women before, during and after incarceration. 

Most women "are incarcerated for low-level, nonviolent offenses and have been victimized by people who have never been held accountable," said Beichner, noting the U.S. leads the rest of the world in the number of women behind bars.

A group of ISU graduate students led by Beichner has compiled a resource guide for women released from the McLean County jail. 

IDOC Assistant Director Gladyse Taylor and Carolyn Gurski, chief of the newly formed Women's Division at IDOC, will lead a team on implementing the landmark Women's Correctional Services Act passed into law in 2017, which improved standards for women's prison and parole systems.  

The approach used to reduce the state's juvenile population by 62 percent starting in 2005 will be considered by the new task force. Prevention, diversion, recidivism reduction, disciplinary policy changes, and alternatives to incarceration will be part of the plan to move and keep women out of prison.

"In order to improve public safety and create an effective justice system, it has become clear that a one-size-fits-all approach does not work," Paula Wolff, a member of the task force who played a leading role in the state's strategy on juvenile offenders, said in a statement.

The documented differences between male and female inmates shows the complex nature of helping women, according to the institute. Nearly 100 percent of female offenders have experienced sexual and/or domestic violence and at least 75 percent have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the institute.

Women also have higher rates of drug use than their male counterparts and are more likely to be custodial parents to children who are at greater risk of becoming involved in the justice system, said istitute data.

Leading the task force will be Pam Rodriguez, CEO of Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, and Colette Payne, who was incarcerated five times, starting at age 14, and now works as a community organizer for Cabrini Green Legal Aid.

Contact Edith Brady-Lunny at (309) 820-3276. Follow her on Twitter: @pg_blunny

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McLean County Courts Reporter

McLean County courts reporter for The Pantagraph.

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