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Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015 12:12 am

State prison reform plan held captive

It’s called RANA and its impact could be significant. But only if Illinois’ Dept. of Corrections unshackles the program, a Rescuing Illinois report reveals.

This article is the product of a collaboration between Illinois Times and the Better Government Association. The BGA is an independent, nonpartisan and nonprofit government watchdog that specializes in investigative reporting with media partners througho

 

Illinois’ devastated finances and well-known government dysfunction is claiming another victim – the legally mandated launch of a promising prison reform program designed to significantly reduce the number of inmates returning to state prisons, according to a Better Government Association Rescuing Illinois investigation.

The Illinois Crime Reduction Act of 2009 ordered the state’s Department of Corrections to start a program dubbed “Risk, Assets and Needs Assessment” (RANA), which was to be implemented statewide by 2013.

So far, neither the full program nor a small proposed pilot program have started, despite a class action lawsuit demanding it get underway and the ongoing pleas of prisoner advocates, including the John Howard Association. The Illinois Department of Corrections (DOC), which has said the plan was tabled for budgetary reasons, notes that litigation is underway and declines to say when or if the RANA pilot program will proceed.

“This is not just an idea, this is law, but it’s not being adopted and implemented,” said Bob Kreisman, an attorney and member of the Union League Club of Chicago, which adopted a resolution in February calling for RANA’s implementation. “RANA is just a small piece but maybe this is part of the impetus to make changes in a criminal justice system in utter disarray and in great need of reform.”

RANA seeks to predict if newly released prisoners will return to prison by determining, and evaluating, the risks they pose along with their personal “assets” and “needs.” Assets would include a prisoner’s education level and family support, while needs can include mental health care and substance abuse treatment.

Advocates say that understanding and quantifying many of these factors will aid the state’s effort to reduce recidivism, a term used to describe the widespread and expensive problem of released prisoners quickly reentering correctional facilities.

One way to cut down on recidivism is by providing outgoing inmates with access to government-backed social services and support programs that can improve their transition to society, and RANA data can help make that connection, backers say. The data can also be used to match prisoners with the right programs and services while in prison, which could also benefit them once they are released.

And RANA results would also help the state parole board determine if long-incarcerated elderly prisoners should be released, they add.

Attempting reform
The Crime Reduction Act notes that, “the Illinois correctional system overwhelmingly incarcerates people whose time in prison does not result in improved behavior.”

It calls for changing this situation through evidence-based programs, including RANA, to collect data and then use that information to make better determinations about how to help prisoners succeed when they reenter society.

The “Risk, Assets and Needs Assessment” program would help the Department of Corrections reduce the prison population, but the Rauner administration has failed to implement it.
PHOTO BY JOHN SMIERCIAK/CHICAGO TRIBUNE/MCT

 

In 2010, as the law demanded, a RANA task force was convened with the assistance of the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice. Among other things, the task force examined specific tools, or metric systems, that were being used in other states. Illinois decided to use a tool known as SPIn, for Service Planning Instrument.

Former DOC acting director Gladyse Taylor tried to implement RANA with existing staff, but the time demands were too great and her staff was also concerned about not having the specialized skills necessary to carry it out, she explained in a July legal deposition related to the class action lawsuit filed against DOC.

About 400 new staff would need to be hired to implement RANA statewide, Taylor said in the deposition. With the state’s severe financial crisis and growing deficit, that has not happened.

Advocates said they were told this summer that all DOC programming decisions were on hold until Gov. Bruce Rauner named a new acting head of the department. He did that on Aug. 14 by naming John Baldwin, former head of the Iowa corrections department, who must still be confirmed by the state Senate.

Advocates waiting and unhappy
Nonetheless, prison reform advocates have grown increasingly frustrated with the delay and with what they say has been a lack of information from DOC about the program’s status.

Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of prison watchdog John Howard Association, said that the group had not been able to get information from DOC about the status of RANA, though she is hopeful that things could change with the department’s new leadership.

“Our understanding is it’s just not happening,” said Vollen-Katz before Baldwin was named director. “There’s a vacuum at the top in terms of getting information.”

Moreover, attorneys for a group of elderly prisoners known as “C-numbers” are especially eager for RANA to be implemented, because they think it would mean many of these estimated 170 prisoners being released after serving what advocates say are disproportionately long sentences.

In January, the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center based at Northwestern University School of Law’s Bluhm Legal Clinic and the Uptown People’s Law Center filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of the “C-number” prisoners, demanding that RANA be implemented and that the prisoners get new parole hearings using the data compiled under it.

The “C-number” inmates were sentenced before 1978, before major changes in Illinois’ sentencing structure and a system of defined sentences was adopted.

The Department of Corrections has racked up a whopping $320 million in staff overtime and other compensation over a five-year span.
PHOTO BY JOHN SMIERCIAK/CHICAGO TRIBUNE/MCT

 

They were given “indeterminate” sentences of a wide range of years, with the idea that a parole board would eventually decide when they were ready to be released. As a result, C-number inmates continue to go before the state’s Prisoner Review Board periodically, and the board votes on whether to release them.

“When it was indeterminate you got a sentence of life or 200 years but the expectation was that a parole board would determine when you’re rehabilitated and let you out,” said David Shapiro, staff attorney of the MacArthur Justice Center.

However, the board typically votes not to release the prisoners, advocates say.

They contend the board is not making its parole decisions based on objective criteria, and that the prisoners have served significantly more time than people sentenced today for similar offenses.

And as the prisoners are aging and in many cases sick, their advocates also say they pose little risk to society and their health care, and related costs, places a significant burden on the corrections system.

There is no guarantee that RANA would do anything to speed the release or change the situations of these prisoners, experts say. But the C-number prisoners’ attorneys think that objective data would make such a strong case for their release, in many cases, that the review board would have trouble saying no.

Pilot program grounded
Gladyse Taylor, who became senior advisor to Acting Director Baldwin after his appointment, has long been seen as an advocate of RANA. Last winter, she spoke to the Union League Club of Chicago about the program’s merits.

As state funding seemed unlikely, Taylor secured a $3 million, three-year federal grant that should enable the department to run a pilot RANA program, hiring seven new specialists.

With no funding from the state necessary, that program was scheduled to start in October, Taylor said in the July deposition. She said she planned to post positions for seven new hires in August. The DOC declined to respond to a question about whether the pilot program is still scheduled for October.

Taylor said in her deposition that the pilot RANA program would include assessments for all C-number prisoners.

Illinois prisons, designed to hold 32,000 inmates, actually hold about 48,000 inmates.
PHOTO BY PATRICK TEHAN/MCT

 

The pilot would also target prisoners scheduled for release to seven Chicago communities that are responsible for 40 percent of the people ending up in the Department of Corrections, according to the deposition.

Some are hopeful that under Baldwin, the corrections department will finally institute the RANA pilot. With 35 years of corrections experience, Baldwin is known as something of a reformer with a dedication to data and evidence-based practices.

State Corrections tumult
However, DOC has had its share of management upheaval over the years and various inmate programs have come and gone.

Baldwin is the second acting director named by freshman Gov. Bruce Rauner, whose first acting director, Donald Stolworthy, left after only a couple of months on the job.

The corrections system is rife with operational and budgetary challenges. The prisons, designed to hold 32,000 inmates, actually incarcerates about 48,000 inmates.

In February, a BGA Rescuing Illinois report found that the corrections agency racked up a whopping $320 million in staff overtime and other compensation over a five-year span, a finding that sparked Rauner to propose adding 450 new guards in his initial state budget.

More money needed
While the pilot program is already funded, the legislature would need to approve funds to expand RANA statewide. That would mean millions of dollars the state does not have on hand.

In fact, Illinois doesn’t even have a budget, although its fiscal year ended June 30, and it is locked in a partisan fight to pass a spending plan.

Still, advocates are holding out hope that the funds for bringing RANA statewide will be found.

Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center, says if the pilot program is implemented, the road will be paved for full implementation.

Should the court decide in the plaintiffs’ favor in the class action lawsuit, which deals only with C-numbers inmates, the same legal arguments could be made to demand statewide application, he said.  

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based author and freelance writer who writes about government, criminal justice and public policy issues for the Better Government Association and other media outlets. She can be reached at info@bettergov.org.

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