TASC President Appointed to Governor Rauner’s Criminal Justice Reform Commission

(Springfield) – TASC President Pam Rodriguez has been appointed to Governor Bruce Rauner’s Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform.

Established by the Governor’s executive order in February, the new Commission will examine all aspects of Illinois’ criminal justice system, sentencing practices, community supervision, and the use of alternatives to incarceration.

Twenty-eight members were named to the Commission, including lawmakers, researchers, nonprofit leaders, and criminal justice experts. Former U.S. Attorney Rodger Heaton, who was named in January to serve as the state’s public safety director, will chair the Commission.

A primary goal of the Commission is to issue recommendations to reduce the population of the state’s crowded prisons by 25 percent within 10 years.

“With the state’s leadership and all of us working together, I feel confident that we can achieve that goal sooner,” said Rodriguez, a projection she echoed in an interview with WICS in Springfield on Wednesday.

“We know what works,” she said. “We have an opportunity to implement evidence-based alternatives to incarceration on a far broader scale, and at the same time achieve better results in terms of cost savings and reduced recidivism.”

The Commission will issue its initial findings and recommendations to the Governor by July 1, and a final report to the Governor and the General Assembly by December 31, 2015.

TASC President Pam Rodriguez, named to Governor Rauner's criminal justice reform commission, is interviewed by WICS Newschannel 20 at the Illinois Capitol in Springfield.

TASC President Pam Rodriguez, named to Governor Rauner’s criminal justice reform commission, is interviewed by WICS Newschannel 20 at the Illinois Capitol in Springfield.


Governor Rauner Boosts Criminal Justice Reform; Solutions Include Diversion and Alternatives to Incarceration

At the signing of executive order establishing criminal justice commission, Governor Rauner greets Mike Torchia, director of Court Services for Sangamon County Adult Probation.  (Photo by TASC.)

Governor Bruce Rauner (right) greeted Mike Torchia, director of Court Services for Sangamon County Adult Probation, at the February 11 signing of an executive order establishing a criminal justice reform commission. (Photo by TASC.)

OP-ED: Governor Bruce Rauner signed an executive order on Wednesday to establish the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform. Given that Illinois’ prison population has grown by 700 percent in the past 40 years, the commission will make recommendations to reduce the state’s prison population by 25 percent.

At the same time, the Illinois General Assembly’s Joint Criminal Justice Reform Committee, created last May and chaired by State Representative Michael J. Zalewski (D-23) and State Senator Michael Noland (D-22), recognizes the need to reduce incarceration of individuals with non-violent offenses and those with mental illness and addiction.

These initiatives by the Governor’s office and the General Assembly are critical and timely. They can be accelerated by leveraging proven solutions already working in Illinois.

First, sound reforms must recognize that the Illinois prison system is one of largest under-funded health operations in the country. Half of adults in prison have a mental health problem, and two thirds of adults in jail and prison have a substance use disorder requiring intervention. Many have co-occurring conditions. However, failed policies of the past 40 years have favored incarceration over treatment, driving prison and jail crowding and the clogging of courts.

Second, to slow the flood of non-violent offenders who churn through Illinois prisons, prosecutors and judges across Illinois must have means to systematically identify and divert non-violent defendants who have substance use or mental health conditions out of the justice system and into licensed treatment programs in the community.

More than 31,000 people were admitted to Illinois prisons in FY 13 (the most recently published data), with an estimated 57 percent sentenced for non-violent offenses eligible for diversion. Meanwhile, Illinois is paying $21,000 per year to incarcerate each of these men and women, when treatment and case management are only one-fifth that cost. No Entry diversion policies and programs—from “drug schools” to mandated community-based treatment with case management—reduce recidivism, save system and taxpayer costs, and address the behavioral health and social issues that often contribute to criminal behavior.

Last year, for example, TASC (Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities) diverted more than 2,000 non-violent defendants away from prison and into supervised drug treatment in the community, saving the State of Illinois $35 million.

We know what works. To achieve real reform and cost savings, Illinois must bring these proven approaches to scale.

Pamela F. Rodriguez

President & CEO

TASC, Inc.


Pamela Rodriguez Op-Ed in Daily Herald: Is Illinois Ready for Criminal Justice Reform?

In a guest opinion-editorial for the Daily Herald, TASC President Pamela Rodriguez discusses the timely and promising opportunities for criminal justice reform in Illinois.

The General Assembly’s new Joint Criminal Justice Reform Committee, chaired by State Rep. Michael J. Zalewski (D-Riverside) and State Senator Michael Noland (D-Elgin), recognizes the need to reduce incarceration of non-violent offenders and those who struggle with mental illness and addiction, asserts Rodriguez. “We can begin to make significant reforms that allow people to get treatment for behavioral health issues as soon as or even before they come in contact with the criminal justice system,” she writes.

Read Rodriguez’s op-ed, including the unique opportunities for reform presented by Medicaid expansion.

Illinois Lawmakers, Quinn Remove Employment Barriers Resulting from Criminal Records

(Chicago) – Illinois lawmakers approved multiple pieces of legislation during the spring legislative session to eliminate barriers to gainful employment for people with non-violent criminal records, including a measure to expand the number of felony conviction records eligible to be sealed.

On August 2, Governor Pat Quinn signed a new law, House Bill 3061 (PA 098-0142), sponsored by State Representative La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago) and State Senator Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago), that allows individuals to petition the court to order the sealing of criminal records for certain additional non-violent convictions.

As a result of the new law, felony conviction records that can now be sealed by a court include certain non-violent theft, forgery, and drug possession offenses. Research shows that these types of non-violent offenses often correlate to drug use. For instance, nearly two-thirds of individuals discharged from state prisons after serving time for non-violent offenses indicated they had been using illegal drugs in the month preceding the commitment offense, and 37 percent reported using drugs at the time of the offense.

“Often we see individuals who got in trouble long ago when drugs had overtaken their lives,” said TASC President Pamela Rodriguez. “Even if they’ve since left their criminal behavior far behind, and have been clean and sober for years, they still are barred from employment opportunities because of past records.”

Petition to seal these records is not allowed until four years after termination of the person’s last sentence, and any person petitioning to seal a drug offense must pass a drug test within 30 days preceding the filing of the petition to seal. These conditions regarding record sealing were already in place before, and they remain applicable under the new law.

“When individuals have paid their debt to society for past mistakes, we have to make sure the system actually allows for them to continue on paths of gainful employment and citizenship,” said Rodriguez. “This is the first successful legislative effort since 2005 to expand the eligible categories of non-violent crimes for which records can be sealed. It will give more people the opportunity to seek and obtain secure, stable employment, which is the foundation of any community safety strategy.”

Sealing does not erase eligible criminal records, but instead makes them generally unavailable without a court order. Certain agencies and organizations – law enforcement, schools, and child services, to name a few – retain access to sealed records.

Before Quinn’s signature on the new law, only a few felony convictions had been eligible for sealing: possession of cannabis, possession of a controlled substance, certain methamphetamine and steroid offenses, and prostitution.

“Governor Quinn, Representative Ford, Senator Raoul, and all of the bill’s supporters deserve congratulations and gratitude for advancing a sophisticated approach to reducing crime, stabilizing neighborhoods, and giving people fair opportunities to contribute to their families and communities,” said Rodriguez.

Twitter @TASC_CHJ

New Illinois Law Clears Hurdle to Health Care Access Upon Exit from Incarceration

(Chicago) – As a means to reduce recidivism and stabilize communities, the availability of reliable health care upon release from jail or prison is a crucial dimension to any community reentry strategy. In particular, ready access to medications and services that treat mental illness and addiction are critical for preventing a return to criminal behavior.

This year, the Illinois General Assembly and Governor Pat Quinn took a key step to ensure that individuals may continue their care uninterrupted when they transition from jail or prison back to the community. House Bill 1046, sponsored in the House by Representative Greg Harris (D-Chicago) and in the Senate by Senator Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago), allows for incarcerated individuals to begin the process of applying for Medicaid coverage when there are more than 30 days remaining before their release, so that coverage could be effective once they are released from prison or jail.

The bill, signed into law by Governor Quinn on August 2, addresses an inadvertent gap in health care coverage that occurs between incarceration and return to the community. Prison and jail medical care is covered by corrections budgets, but upon release, individuals must have either private or public insurance (i.e., Medicaid) to continue their health care in the community.

The new law amends a 2010 measure, PA 096-0872, which allows individuals to apply for medical assistance 30 days before release. However, due to the length of time it typically takes to complete the application and enrollment process, the 30-day-limit became an obstacle to care rather than a means to achieve the intended goal, according to TASC President Pamela Rodriguez.

“Because of the lag time in completing the enrollment process, individuals with mental health issues and other serious behavioral health conditions are being released from incarceration without having access to needed medications and treatment upon release,”  explained Rodriguez. “The 2010 law inadvertently stopped short of ensuring access to care, as was intended.”

The John Howard Association and TASC’s Center for Health and Justice worked together in advocating the measure, thus bringing the 2010 law in line with its intent.

The new law, PA 98-0139, which was approved with overwhelming bi-partisan majorities in both chambers, allows the Illinois Department of Health and Family Services, the Illinois Department of Human Services, and the Illinois Department of Corrections to develop administrative procedures for an application process that specifically fits within jail and prison environments.

Rodriguez stressed that the law grants no new benefits to formerly incarcerated individuals.

“The new law neither affects an individual’s eligibility for medical assistance, nor does it grant medical coverage while an individual is incarcerated,” said Rodriguez. “Instead, it connects people with community health services that reduce the likelihood of crime and recidivism, and it increases their ability to conduct independent and productive lives.”

Twitter @TASC_CHJ

TASC President Hails Quinn Signature on New Criminal Justice Reform Laws

(Chicago, IL) – A new state law that is set to give Illinois employers a tax break to hire people with criminal records was signed over the weekend as part of an Illinois justice reform package.

Senate Bill 1659, which was among several signed by Governor Pat Quinn at a press conference on August 3, increases the income tax credit for employers who hire qualified individuals with criminal records. Sponsored by State Senator Patricia Van Pelt (D-Chicago), the new law extends the maximum tax credit from $600 to $1,500 per employee.

The tax credit will remain valid if an individual is hired within three years of being released from prison, rather than the current deadline of one year. The credit may be taken for up to five years.

“Formerly incarcerated individuals shouldn’t face a life sentence of no job prospects and no opportunities to better themselves just because they have served time in prison,” Quinn said. “These new laws will help them get back on their feet, contribute to their communities and keep one offense from becoming a lifelong barrier.”

In addition to the tax credit measure, Quinn also signed legislation that offers prosecutors and judges more sentencing options for non-violent offenders to reduce the risk of repeat offenses, and he approved a bill to streamline the criminal record expungement process.

Sponsored by House Minority Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego), House Bill 3010 creates a “second chance probation” option for non-violent offenders. The new law allows a conviction to be cleared from a defendant’s record upon successful completion of at least a two-year period of probation, giving prosecutors and judges more leeway in dealing with certain offenses, Quinn said.

The new “second chance probation” law is a companion to the other measure signed by the Governor, House Bill 2470, sponsored by State Rep. Art Turner, Jr. (D-Chicago). This law aims to ensure that motions to expunge or seal criminal records are heard in a timely manner, enabling individuals to quickly restart their professional and personal lives.

Among those attending the Quinn press conference was TASC president and CEO Pamela Rodriguez, who hailed the new laws.

“By providing tax credits to employers and by expunging records of non-violent offenders, these laws ease the path to employment, apartments, and educational assistance for ex-offenders,” she said. “And by extension, recidivism is reduced, communities are stabilized, and neighborhoods can reignite economic activity.”

Rodriguez stressed that the legislation includes strict conditions.

“These new laws present opportunities and benefits that must be earned,” she said. “People must work to finish any necessary substance abuse treatment, they must strictly abide by the terms of their probation while under criminal justice supervision, and they must avoid any criminal activity; these are not gifts.”

TASC’s president also praised the leadership and community advocacy behind the legislation.

“When TASC began more than 35 years ago, Illinois’ prisons had not yet been flooded with people with non-violent offenses, and the collateral consequences of such convictions on a large scale were not yet recognized,” said Rodriguez. “Fortunately, Governor Quinn, state legislators, community leaders, and organizations such as our Center for Health and Justice are all working to mitigate these mistakes and renew opportunities for people to reintegrate successfully and permanently into society.”


Photos by Harvey Tillis for IOCI Media Services

Photos by Harvey Tillis for IOCI Media Services

Twitter @TASC_CHJ

Madison County, IL Curbs Heroin Fatalities; Deaths Climb in DuPage, Marion, Winnebago

(Chicago, IL) – As heroin deaths surge in several Illinois counties, Madison County has answers that can slam the brakes on fatalities.

Heroin killed at least 15 people in DuPage County in July alone, and Winnebago County is experiencing record overdose death rates. Similar stories are emerging from Marion County and elsewhere across Illinois. Nationwide, heroin use has doubled in the past decade.

Meanwhile, in Madison County last year, an alarming spike in opiate-related deaths among people newly released from jail or residential drug treatment led to a quick and coordinated response to prevent further fatalities.

Between April 2011 and June 2012, opiate overdose had killed eight TASC clients in Madison County. That crisis prompted a team response by the Madison County probation department, jail personnel, treatment providers, and TASC. In July 2012, they implemented the Madison County Opiate Alert Project, which involved closely tracking probationers with heroin addictions as they were released from incarceration or treatment. By communicating immediately with one another regarding these high-risk cases, the intervention team saved lives.

Since the project’s launch one year ago, no TASC client has died from a heroin overdose. (See story on page 4 of TASC’s Spring 2013 News & Views.)

“When a person addicted to heroin or other opiates spends weeks or months in jail, and then returns to the drug upon release, there is a strong likelihood for overdose,” said TASC Operations Director Craig Cooper. “But thanks to partnerships between probation, the jail, treatment programs, and TASC, Madison County has a heroin overdose prevention strategy that so far has exceeded our hopes and expectations. We are committed to our strong collaboration because we know we’re saving lives.”

The project has lessons for other counties that are facing the same crisis.

“This initiative shows that heroin deaths are indeed preventable when we follow what the research dictates and when we implement partnerships and practices accordingly,” said TASC President Pamela Rodriguez.

“Nevertheless, a key to any drug prevention strategy is adequate funding to fully confront a drug epidemic, so that lessons learned in one area can be applied on a broad scale. A crisis such as what we’re seeing with heroin, in all of its dimensions, needs a coordinated response, whether it targets probationers in Madison County or youth in DuPage County,” stated Rodriguez. “And on this point Illinois has fallen flat, gutting its prevention funding in recent years.”

The state has nearly eliminated drug prevention funding since 2009, and has slashed funding for treatment by a third.

“We are witnessing a public health crisis in Illinois without adequate resources to fight it,” Rodriguez said. “But we will keep fighting.”

For more on responding to the heroin crisis in Illinois, please see previous post: Heroin Deaths Surge in DuPage; Good Samaritan Law and Emergency Meds Can Prevent Fatalities But They’re Not Enough