Public Support Grows for Criminal Justice Diversion Initiatives

(Chicago) – A recent poll of Illinois voters indicates strong support for criminal justice reform. More than two thirds (70 percent) agree that state prisons are overcrowded and require reform for people with non-violent offenses, and four in five (83 percent) support sending fewer individuals with low-risk, non-violent offenses to prison so that state funding can be used to keep people who have committed violent offenses incarcerated for their full sentences.

The number of people behind bars in the U.S. has grown more than 500 percent over the past four decades, and U.S. incarceration rate tops the charts. In line with public opinion, policymakers are reversing their appetite for tough-on-crime policies that have fueled record incarceration rates. In fact, criminal justice reform stands apart as one of the only issues on which individuals across political parties are unified in their support.

There also is a growing understanding of the extremely high rates of substance use and mental health disorders among people involved in the criminal justice system, and of the need to address these problems earlier in the lifespan as a critical part of criminal justice reforms, before medical and behavioral health problems become advanced, and before the often lifelong collateral consequences of a conviction block individuals’ efforts to reenter communities, lead productive lives, and avoid future criminal behavior, re-arrest, and re-incarceration.

In 2013, TASC’s Center for Health and Justice (CHJ) conducted a national survey of criminal justice diversion programs and practices, to explore the landscape of diversion at the front end of the system—by law enforcement, by prosecutors and pre-trial service agencies, and by courts. CHJ is currently conducting an Illinois survey to explore the use of diversion programs and practices at phases of justice system involvement prior to conviction and sentencing, with a special focus on those operated by prosecutors, and plans to release a report with findings and recommendations later this year.

Poll of Illinois voters shows overwhelming support for criminal justice reform. Source and image credit: U.S. Justice Action Network

Poll of Illinois voters shows overwhelming support for criminal justice reform. Source and image credit: U.S. Justice Action Network

National TASC Conference Showcases Local Diversion Programs

(Chicago) – Several criminal justice diversion programs in Illinois were showcased at the recent annual conference of National TASC, an association of programs that connect justice systems to community-based treatment.

TASC, Inc. of Illinois served as the host organization for the national conference, which took place in Chicago and drew attendees representing programs in states from North Carolina to Hawaii. One of the conference themes was the importance of diverting people with non-violent charges away from traditional criminal justice processing and into services in the community.

Although diversion is not a new concept, public opinion, health coverage brought about by Medicaid expansion, and bipartisan efforts toward criminal justice reform have propelled such initiatives to the forefront of public policy. The goals of such programs vary depending on the jurisdiction, but most aim to reduce the numbers of people going into the justice system, reduce jail stays, strengthen connections to health and supportive services in the community, and reduce recidivism.

Illinois Diversion Programs Highlighted

At the conference, held April 25-27 at the Westin Michigan Avenue, experts who have implemented front-end diversion programs in Illinois offered their experiences and strategies for developing these initiatives. Chief Eric Guenther, public safety director for the Village of Mundelein, and Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Nerheim described their collaboration in implementing smart-on-crime approaches. Motivated by the dramatic increase in opioid overdoses and deaths in the area, they are leading the development of a collaborative effort to divert people with drug problems to community-based treatment rather than arrest them. Similar programs are being designed and implemented across Illinois and the country, inspired by the Gloucester, Massachusetts, Angel Program launched in 2015.

“We have been losing a lot of young people to overdose deaths all over our county. We had to come up with a new way of dealing with this [opioid] epidemic,” said Nerheim. “The vast majority of people who come into the system are going to be back with us—back in society—and we want them to be productive members. Everyone should have the opportunity for a second chance.”

Chief Guenther noted the importance of building trust between the community and law enforcement, so that community members feel comfortable coming to the police department for help. He remarked on the police department’s unique ability to engage people any time of day, any day in the year. “A person may decide at 2:00 a.m. that they want out [of addiction], and having to wait until 8:00 a.m. may mean that we lose that window.” Guenther also stressed that planning processes should include people in recovery to ensure that programming and messaging will appeal to individuals who need help.

Mark Kammerer, the alternative prosecution/sentencing unit coordinator at the Cook County, Illinois, State’s Attorney’s Office, described the array of programs in place to divert people out of traditional case processing, noting that his office has been operating diversion programming in some fashion since the 1970s. “We now have interventions for people with the least extensive criminal background to high-risk, high-need individuals. One size does not fit all, so we offer a continuum of interventions. The goal is to identify and screen people to get them into diversion programs sooner, rather than later, in the criminal justice system.”

TASC Vice President George Williams, who offered the conference’s opening remarks, spoke of TASC’s 40-year history in advocating for people who need help, and emphasized that clients, constituents, friends, and family members are at the heart of this work. “Everything we do in this room is for the rights, interests, health, and needs of the men and women who have come through our doors,” he said.

New Opportunities via Medicaid Expansion

“Diversion programs are surging in popularity and evolving in response to current needs,” said Laura Brookes, policy director at TASC. Introducing the panel discussion, Brookes offered that the justice system can divert many people who represent a low public safety risk to programs in the community, stemming the tide of people coming into the system at the front end and throughout it.

“Now is a particularly exciting time to be involved in this work, not only because of the broad support for much-needed reform, but also with the expansion of Medicaid in many states under the Affordable Care Act,” said Brookes. “This means that local and state governments can save justice and corrections costs by establishing connections to Medicaid-reimbursable behavioral health and medical resources in the community. These resources can help increase diversion, as justice systems become confident that many of people they are diverting will be able to access the care they need and reduce offending.”

The benefits of diversion programs were highlighted at the 2016 National TASC conference.

Benefits of diversion programs were highlighted at the 2016 National TASC conference in Chicago.

TASC Public Policy Priorities

At local, state, and federal levels, TASC supports public policies that reduce incarceration and create healthier communities. Our policy priorities are to:

1. Shrink the justice system by diverting eligible people away from prosecution and incarceration and into community-based services, as soon as appropriate.

2. Create pathways for successful reentry after justice involvement, and reduce barriers that inhibit success.

3. Promote evidence-based strategies in substance use and mental health disorder prevention, treatment, and recovery.

4. Expand community capacity to treat mental health and substance use disorders, adapting to changing environments.

TASC President Pam Rodriguez serves on Governor Rauner’s Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform, and she has been honored by the White House for advancing system-wide justice interventions for people with substance use disorders. Rodriguez and TASC Founder Melody Heaps are featured in a White House video describing TASC as a model for reducing incarceration and increasing access to community-based healthcare and recovery.

For more information on TASC’s public policy activities, please visit our Center for Health and Justice.

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.

 

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.

National Survey of Diversion Programs Takes Center Stage at Congressional Briefing

(Washington, DC) – A new survey of criminal justice diversion programs across the U.S. reveals that law enforcement, prosecutors, and courts are increasingly diverting certain people with non-violent charges away from courts and incarceration and into smarter, more science-based, and more effective alternatives in the community. These diversion options are designed to save costs, address individuals’ behavioral health issues, and reduce their likelihood of recidivism.

The report, produced by the Center for Health and Justice at TASC (CHJ) and released at a U.S. Congressional staff briefing today, identifies and describes more than 100 criminal justice diversion programs from across the country upon which justice systems increasingly rely.

“The idea with this report is to provide a picture of the landscape of diversion and to promote its effective use at the front end of the justice system,” said CHJ President Pamela Rodriguez. “The survey intends to boost conversations across the country about available alternatives to conviction and incarceration.”

Rodriguez says diversion programs are gaining currency among law enforcement, prosecutors, and courts across the country.

“The survey found that as prison populations have swelled and public budgets have tightened, many jurisdictions are embracing diversion alternatives out of necessity,” said Rodriguez. “The report is a great benefit to law enforcement and justice systems in terms of the scope and breadth of diversion options available to them.”

The survey rests on the understanding that a criminal conviction – for either a misdemeanor or felony – triggers a cascade of collateral consequences that often severely hamper an individual’s ability to become and remain a productive member of the community, according to Rodriguez.

“This survey focuses on diversion programs that address an individual’s behavior without resulting in a criminal conviction,” said Rodriguez. “These programs may occur as early as street-level law enforcement intervention, or as late as court involvement, but the distinguishing characteristic of the programs surveyed is that they allow individuals to avoid a conviction, which otherwise clings to a person long after his or her debt to society has been paid.”

To develop this report, project staff surveyed more than 100 diversion programs with the intention of spotlighting program design, participating stakeholders, affected communities, implementation challenges and successes, and, where available, cost savings and overall effectiveness, aiming also to express the scale of their existence across the country.

In addition to highlighting the proliferation and diversity of diversion programs across the country, the survey analysis also found:

  • While programs vary in their approach to achieve diversion from traditional criminal justice case processing, a common critical component among many is a focus on individuals with substance use and mental health issues.
  • Many diversion programs currently are limited to individuals with first-time or low-level offenses.
  • Resources should be data driven, matching individuals’ risks and clinical needs with appropriate supervision and services in the community.
  • Given the many types of diversion programs in existence across the country, there are no apparent overarching standards for collecting or publishing evaluation data, nor standard definitions and language among such programs.

“We are at a critical juncture in criminal justice policy,” said Rodriguez. “Diversion programs across the country are emerging with a collective voice that says, ‘Locking up and labeling people is rarely the answer to non-violent offenses, especially when substance use and mental health issues play a role. There’s a better way.’”

The Center for Health and Justice at TASC is a national public policy group that offers solutions for criminal justice, child welfare, and behavioral health, focusing on strategies and lessons learned for reducing recidivism, improving health interventions, and achieving public cost savings.

 Twitter @TASC_CHJ   #diversion

Congressional Staff Briefing on Diversion Programs, Jan. 13, 2014. Speakers (left to right): Pamela Rodriguez, Center for Health and Justice at TASC (Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities); Kris Nyrop Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) project in Seattle; Shauna L. Boliker, Office of the Cook County State’s Attorney; Mark Kammerer, Office of the Cook County State’s Attorney; George A.H. Williams, Center for Health and Justice at TASC.  Photos by Warren Hansen.

Congressional Staff Briefing on Diversion Programs, Jan. 13, 2014. Speakers (left to right): Pamela Rodriguez, Center for Health and Justice at TASC (Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities); Kris Nyrop Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) project in Seattle; Shauna L. Boliker, Office of the Cook County State’s Attorney; Mark Kammerer, Office of the Cook County State’s Attorney; George A.H. Williams, Center for Health and Justice at TASC. Photos by Warren Hansen.

Congressional Staff Briefing on Diversion Programs, Jan. 13, 2014. Speakers (left to right): Pamela Rodriguez, Center for Health and Justice at TASC (Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities); Kris Nyrop, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) project in Seattle; Shauna L. Boliker, Office of the Cook County State’s Attorney; Mark Kammerer, Office of the Cook County State’s Attorney; George A.H. Williams, Center for Health and Justice at TASC. Photos by Warren Hansen.

 

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 http://tpj.sagepub.com/content/91/3_suppl.toc. 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.