Collateral Consequences of Convictions

(Chicago) – TASC submitted comments for the May 19 briefing of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on Collateral Consequences: The Crossroads of Punishment, Redemption, and the Effects on Communities.

The briefing focused on the barriers to successful community reentry for formerly incarcerated individuals. According to the Commission, “They may face numerous barriers to reentry, including denial of governmental assistance designed to assist with finding employment. These collateral consequences affect families of the formerly incarcerated in a multitude of ways. For decades, communities of color have been disproportionately represented in the rates of felony convictions, and therefore are hardest hit.”

These barriers are mirrored in Illinois, and are experienced by TASC clients, even decades after they have paid their debt to society and resumed a law-abiding life. Barred access to employment and housing opportunities also create added challenges for individuals who are also striving to overcome substance use and mental health disorders.

Below is a synopsis of TASC’s comments, offering observations from decades of experience working to support diversion to community-based behavioral health treatment for men and women involved in the justice system, as well as reentry support following release from incarceration:

[Barriers to reentry and disproportionate minority contact are among] the reasons that TASC actively pursues strategies and opportunities that reduce the number of people entering the justice system. We seek to divert people away at every intervention point, and we promote avenues to health and recovery in the community so individuals do not return to the system.

We worked with and drafted reports on behalf of the Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study (DJIS) Commission and Illinois Racial and Ethnic Impact [REI] Research Task Force) to evaluate and address disparities in the justice system. We conducted several surveys of diversion programs across the country and in Illinois that prevent criminal convictions on record, offering observations and recommendations for improvement and expansion.

We seek ways to improve access to healthcare coverage for those who come in contact with the justice system. Recently we have collaborated with jurisdictions in exploring law enforcement diversion practices for drug-involved individuals, a need that has become even more visible and accentuated in the midst of the opioid crisis.

We recognize that there are many individuals in the justice system who are less likely to return to the system if they have access to behavioral health services, and we know that a criminal record acts as a barrier to recovery, restored citizenship, and community reintegration. Improving access to and connecting justice-involved populations to community-based services may help reduce the racial disparities that exist throughout the criminal justice system. It is good health policy. It is good justice policy. It is good public policy.

In our decades of work in these fields, we have made a number of observations about the state of safe, responsible criminal justice diversion that we hope will inform the Commission’s work.

  • The criminal justice system has become a de facto societal response to substance use and mental illness. Across the U.S., criminal justice systems are managing record numbers of people, with rates of substance use and mental health disorders that are much higher than those among the general public. More jurisdictions are focusing efforts to leverage resources toward management of these disorders in the community instead of the justice system, seeking to prevent taxpayer costs associated with incarceration and recidivism, as well as to support restored citizenship and second chances.
  • Numerous factors have led to broad-based calls for criminal justice reform. In recent years, a confluence of factors has created fertile ground for broad-based improvements to criminal justice policy and practice. These factors have included overburdened courts, crowded jails and prisons, strained government budgets, advances in the science of drug use intervention and recovery, shifting public attitudes about drug policy, awareness of the negative and residual impacts of justice involvement on families and communities, attention on the disparate burden of justice policies on racial/ethnic minority communities, and a preponderance of research on the effectiveness and cost efficiency of alternatives to incarceration.
  • Diversion policy should be focused on systems rather than programs. Modern justice policy is beginning to adopt public health strategies, focusing on broad-based, systemic intervention, and the application of the minimum but appropriate amount of supervision, sanctions, accountability, services, and resources to achieve the intended result.
  • Meaningful diversion can happen at any point before conviction. Initiatives can occur at points of contact with law enforcement, prosecutors and public defenders, pretrial services and probation, the judiciary, and even the jail. In cases where diversion before conviction isn’t an option, treatment-based alternatives to incarceration can prevent recidivism, taxpayer costs, and deleterious effects of confinement.
  • Evidence-based practices should inform decision-making. The most effective response to justice-involved individuals with substance use and mental health issues is a locally defined balance of supervision, accountability, and community treatment and support. What is deemed appropriate should be driven by the ever-expanding base of research and data regarding which intervention models best serve a given population at a given point of justice involvement. A risk-needs-responsivity (RNR) approach offers particular promise in this context. Considered a best practice for criminal justice populations, this approach assesses both the risk of recidivism as well as needs related to substance use, mental health, and other social and environmental conditions, and determines the appropriate type and dose of treatments and other services necessary to maximize justice and health outcomes.
  • Responses should be data-driven, which may mean changes in methods and resource allocation related to data collection. Justice, health, and community resources should be allocated to those programs that demonstrate the greatest capacity to reduce recidivism, protect public order and safety, promote public health, and promote equal and fair access to alternative options, while also mitigating the need for costly justice supervision. These determinations will be most successful if uniform data are collected and used—including measures related to the race/ethnicity of participants—and if programs take formal steps to develop standardized outcome measures (cost-, public safety-, and public health-based), and measure, analyze, monitor, and share results.
  • Arbitrary prohibitions on eligibility are counter-productive. Many jurisdictions still set limits on participation in diversion programs based on offense history or type, such as accepting only people with first-time or “low-level” offenses. Instead, jurisdictions can adopt strategies and interventions that focus on those individuals most likely to recidivate, and that consider factors other than just current charge and criminal history in determining an intervention plan (for example, through the use of individualized risk and needs assessments). The next generation of diversion programs should be able to determine and provide the appropriate level of services and justice supervision for each individual.
  • The field is continuing to evolve. The development of a common, shared language to discuss diversion and alternatives to incarceration is still in process. The need for clarity and specificity around the description of programs and models will be of increasing importance in the growing exchange of ideas, innovations, and best practices.

We are committed to continuing our work to connect people involved in or at risk for involvement in the justice system with community-based treatment and services for behavioral health conditions, to promote and support diversion and alternative options that prevent criminal convictions on record whenever appropriate and possible, and to advance policies and practices that reduce disproportionate minority contact with the justice system.


Our View: End Racial Disproportionality in Drug Arrests, Expand Interventions for All Drug Offenders

(Chicago) — According to a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union, and as reported in the Chicago Tribune, African-Americans in Illinois are nearly eight times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, even though usage rates between the groups are nearly the same. The New York Times notes that these disparities are worst in Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota.

The disproportionality in marijuana arrests is part of a deeper problem in Illinois, where African-Americans are far more likely than whites to be arrested and prosecuted for any drug crime.

A December 2010 study by the Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study Commission, a non-partisan group of policymakers and justice professionals, found that arrest data indicated that disproportionality in all drug arrests occurred in 62 of the 102 counties in Illinois, including urban, suburban, and rural areas. Racial disparities for drug arrests varied widely by county but tended to be greater in jurisdictions with smaller populations of nonwhite residents.

In addition, the study noted that the rate of imprisonment for all drug offenses is also substantially higher for African-Americans than for whites, averaging 80 percent of all persons admitted to Illinois prisons for drug offenses.

However, what the recent report on marijuana arrests does not capture is the futility and the wasted money of a law enforcement strategy that arrests, prosecutes, and imprisons non-violent drug offenders versus a public health intervention strategy that deploys – more effectively, efficiently and fairly – drug prevention, drug treatment and other alternatives to incarceration for each and every drug offender.

Non-violent drug arrests that lead to imprisonment annually cost Illinois taxpayers, on average, $25,000, versus $5,000 for drug treatment and supervision.

Rather than unjustly targeting African-Americans for drug offenses, the State of Illinois and local governments should expand the use of diversionary programs and sentencing alternatives –including day reporting centers, drug schools, specialty courts, first offender probation, and designated program supervision – for all drug offenders.

IACJ to Honor U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, Congressman Danny K. Davis, IL Senator Mattie Hunter and IL Senator Kwame Raoul for Criminal Justice and Racial Justice Legislation

(Chicago, IL) —  Supporters of criminal justice reform are invited to join the Illinois Association for Criminal Justice (IACJ) in honoring legislators who have demonstrated key leadership in advancing racial and criminal justice.

IACJ’s awards will be presented at the Safer Foundation, 571 W. Jackson Blvd. in Chicago on Sunday, March 18, 2012 at 3:00 p.m.

  • The association will recognize the work of:U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, for sponsoring the Fair Sentencing Act, signed into law in 2010, which reduces the sentencing disparity in mandatory penalties for possession of crack versus powder cocaine. (Clarisol Duque, Chicago Director for the Office of Senator Durbin, will accept the award on the Senator’s behalf.)
  • U.S. Congressman Danny K. Davis, for sponsoring the Second Chance Act, originally signed into law in 2008, which provides federal seed grants for programs that assist individuals released from prison to successfully reenter society.
  • IL State Senator Mattie Hunter, for leading the Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study Commission, which addresses racial disparities in the justice system’s response to drug crimes.
  • IL State Senator Kwame Raoul, for sponsoring the Illinois Crime Reduction Act, which invests in community-based solutions to non-violent, drug-related crime.

Recognizing that corrections reform is at the top of state and federal policy agendas, IACJ will honor legislators whose leadership has been instrumental in improving policy. The awards will be presented by Diane Williams, chair of the IACJ board and president of the Safer Foundation, and Pamela Rodriguez, vice-chair of the IACJ board and president of TASC (Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities). The Safer Foundation and TASC are among the founding members of IACJ.

To confirm your attendance, please send an email with your name, title, and organization/affiliation to:


Top Researchers Advise on Criminal Justice Reform in “The Prison Journal”; Chicago Experts Arthur Lurigio, Pamela Rodriguez Featured

(Chicago, IL) – The Prison Journal has released a landmark publication on criminal justice reform that is a must-read for policy makers across the country. Chicago’s Arthur Lurigio, professor of psychology and criminology at Loyola University Chicago, and Pamela Rodriguez, president of Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities (TASC), one of the nation’s leading prison alternative programs, are featured authors and guest editors of the special edition. 

Harry K. Wexler of the National Development and Research Institutes (NDRI) is also a lead author and guest editor of the special publication.

The issue, Criminal Justice Reform: Issues and Recommendations for Corrections, presents a series of articles by several of the nation’s preeminent researchers in criminal justice. They discuss the nature and consequences of the current criminal justice crisis and strategic solutions that can reverse the costly trends of the past 30 years.

A total of 7.3 million Americans are now incarcerated or on probation or parole, equal to one in every 31 adults, an increase of 290% since 1980. Drug offenders in prisons and jails have increased 1200% since 1980. A significant percentage of these offenders have no history of violence or major drug selling activity.

“Increasingly, the drug war that has been waged for 30 years is seen as a ‘failure’ or a creator of more harm than good,” writes criminologist Alfred Blumstein in the special issue. “Nevertheless, it has been pursued with increasing intensity using arrest and incarceration as its dominant outcome measure.”

“There is a growing U.S. national consensus that with proper attention to the policies that drive the size of prison populations, these populations can be reduced,” add researchers Todd Clear and Dennis Shrantz. “Concurrently, the current fiscal crisis has created enormous pressure to reduce prison populations, with a first-in-decades showing of political support.”

“Sustainable reforms require legislation,” write the guest editors. “Without that leadership, or in the absence of political will or public support for the changes recommended, they will end up as so many other efforts—forward-thinking ideas filed away on a shelf.”

The issue can be downloaded from After October 31, it can be accessed with the following user ID: Edtpj and password: Sagetpj. The publication’s articles include:

Many national groups have called for correctional reform, including the Council of State Governments, the Pew Center on the States, the Sentencing Project, and the Vera Institute of Justice.

TASC, Inc. is a statewide, nonprofit organization with a 35-year history of providing alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders in Illinois.

Chicago Sun-Times Editorial: Justice System Unfair to Drug Offenders

(Chicago, IL) – February 2, 2011

The Chicago Sun-Times has published an editorial following the release of the final report by the Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study Commission. (See story.)

The editorial concludes, “The state can make improvements… by increasing funding for prison-alternative programs such as drug courts and substance abuse treatment for nonviolent offenders. Each prison inmate costs the state about $25,000 a year, according to Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities. The cost of treating a low-level drug offender, on the other hand, ranges from $4,000 to $7,000.

“Better alternatives to prison are essential.”

Please read the full editorial here.


African Americans in Cook County 5 Times More Likely than Whites to Go to Prison for Low-Level Drug Offenses, New Report Reveals


(Chicago, IL) – January 31, 2011


A state commission today released a report that reveals that African Americans in Cook County charged with low-level drug crimes were sent to prison at a rate almost five times greater than whites in 2005, the most recent year for which the comprehensive data set was available.

The Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study Commission, established in 2008 to examine the impact of Illinois drug laws on racial and ethnic groups, found in its independent research that, among Cook County defendants charged with a Class 4, low-level drug possession, 19 percent of African-American defendants were sentenced to prison, compared with 4 percent of white defendants.

Additionally, statewide arrest data indicated that disproportionality in drug arrests occurred in 62 of Illinois’ 102 counties, including urban, suburban, and rural areas. Racial disparities for drug arrests varied widely by county but tended to be greater in jurisdictions with smaller populations of nonwhite residents.

“The Commission has found that people of color, particularly African Americans, are disproportionately arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned for low-level drug crimes in Illinois,” said State Senator Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago), co-chair of the commission.

“We need to change certain policies and practices so that justice is administered fairly across racial and ethnic lines,” said Hunter. “We need to divert non-violent drug offenders from expensive incarceration to rehabilitation programs, such as court-ordered drug treatment.”

“When it comes to arrests and prosecution for drug crimes, racial disproportionality affects communities in urban, suburban, and rural areas across Illinois,” said Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities (TASC) President Pamela Rodriguez, whose organization provided research support to the Commission. “The problem of disproportionate incarceration undermines the fundamental principles of a just society,” Rodriguez said. “It also creates a burden for every taxpayer.”

Both Hunter and Rodriguez emphasized that the focus now needs to be on solutions, contending that the Illinois General Assembly and Governor Pat Quinn should get behind the commission’s key recommendations to erase the disproportionate arrest and imprisonment of African Americans involved in low-level drug crimes in Illinois.

“We need to mitigate the lasting harm to families and communities created by the disproportionate administration of justice,” said Hunter. “The commission has identified practical recommendations, such as expanding sentencing alternatives that include drug treatment.”

TASC Founder Receives Justice Leadership Award, Calls for Public Health Approach to Addiction

 At TASC’s December 1 annual luncheon, TASC founder Melody M. Heaps accepted the agency’s 2010 Justice Leadership Award.  Attendees were moved by Ms. Heaps’ speech, of which excerpts are offered below.  Photos and quotes from other luncheon speakers will be posted soon on this blog.


For over thirty years I have had the privilege of working for TASC, an agency whose mission and culture is the restoration of hope to thousands of shattered lives, lives broken by a disease which we have come to understand, through definitive scientific research, as a disease of the brain.

As a society we treat this disease with a combination of fascination, sensationalism and shame. For no other health or medical condition do we attribute such derisive emotions. We watch generations—our sons, our daughters—experience the trauma of broken families. We pretend this is a condition of the inner city, the poor—“those other people” –even as our children leave the suburbs to travel to the drug markets to buy heroin or steal prescription painkillers from our medicine cabinets.

Worst of all, we allow our fellow citizens to pay the steepest price for this disease. We incarcerate more of our citizens than any other country in western civilization, mostly because of the effects of drug use and abuse. And we do so disproportionately so that our minority citizens bear the greatest burden. Even though the rate of illicit drug use is proportionate to all racial populations, one in six African American men was incarcerated in 2001. If the trend continues as it has, one in three African American males can expect to spend some time in prison during his life. This largely because of crimes related to drugs, unavailable treatment for persons without insurance, insufficient legal representation or drug laws which discriminate between cocaine and crack cocaine: one being a product marketed to more affluent communities, the other marketed to the inner cities. In Illinois, the proportion of African Americans arrested for drug offenses increased over a 10-year span from 46 to 82 percent while the proportion of whites decreased steadily from 41 to 11 percent.

This country and those of us in this room must come to understand that drug and alcohol addiction are a public health problem—a public health epidemic—which needs to be confronted, much the same as we have confronted other epidemics or public health dangers such as smoking.

What I love about this agency and why I am so glad that those of you here today have chosen to support TASC is that while it is a great joy to witness the restoration of lives as we have seen in the video, it is also our moral imperative to change the systems, the public policies which have created the conditions in which the disease of addiction thrives, producing devastating social and economic consequences. TASC is committed to a scientifically based public health solution and TASC works tirelessly to create treatment opportunities in lieu of incarceration for individuals entering the justice system.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the remarkable journey of the TASC board of directors and the executive team. This organization, its board and executive team, have not looked back but are moving aggressively to meet new challenges at this critical time in our state and national history. I am particularly amazed at the energy of TASC’s president, Pamela Rodriguez. Under the wise direction of the board of directors, she, along with our executive vice president, Peter Palanca, CFO Roy Fesmire and our vice presidents George Williams and Carolyn Ross, are taking the organization in directions which are faithful to its mission while cognizant of the challenges of a national recession, emergence of national healthcare and a new political landscape.

Again I want to thank you for this honor, for the privilege of service and for the presence of so many who walk with me on the journey to create a more just society.”