(This is the third of 10 posts. Each is a chapter from the Building a Safe Community project I did for the county.)
Imagine putting the 2,394 men, women and children of Durand behind bars in the Winnebago County Justice Center. Then find cells for another 558 from neighboring Pecatonica.
One in 100 Americans is in jail or in prison. In Winnebago County with its 295,266 residents that would mean the equivalent of 2,952 – more than the population of Durand.
More than 1,500 Winnebago County adults call an Illinois state prison home. On any given day, another 1,000 get their meals behind bars in the Winnebago County Justice Center – the jail.
One in 31 United States adults is behind bars or on probation from local jails or on parole from state prisons. Four in 10 of those criminals will be re-arrested and incarcerated again within three years. Some studies put that number at six in 10.
State spending on corrections is four times what it was 20 years ago and trails only Medicaid as the leading driver of state budget growth.
Criminal justice – from arrest to sentencing, from incarceration to rehabilitation, from staffing to construction– is big business combined with political sound bites, turf conflicts and opposing philosophies. The dissonance is loud and confusing between those who profess to be “tough on crime” and those who say, “there are no throwaway people.”
Finding the best paths to build a safe community – nationally and regionally – is not without conflict, and the national best practices models increasingly point to the need for integrated, multi-dimensional, wrap-around approaches.
The partnership between Winnebago County and the 17th Judicial Circuit Court is transforming the county’s criminal justice system, contrary to the often confrontational “community wisdom.” The partnership between county government leaders and court officials has developed programs to improve case management, provide comprehensive community services, reduce recidivism and utilize financial resources appropriately.
Since the mid-1990s, the Winnebago County criminal justice system has been transforming itself from a traditional “arrest, sentence, jail, release, repeat” model into an integrated system of community policing, aggressive prosecution and defense, specialty courts, alternative programs and evidence-based analysis.
Championed by Winnebago County Board Chair Scott Christiansen and the 17th circuit’s chief judges, the partnership can point to collaborations like the Resource Intervention Center, which over three years has saved almost $10 million in expenses and reduced recidivism by 62 percent.
With the addition in 2008 of the Resource Intervention Center, a stand-alone, comprehensive programming center, Winnebago County established itself as a leader in creating alternative-to-incarceration models. The Resource Intervention Center, which is not a day-reporting center, is the only one of its kind in Illinois.
A just-completed, three-year research study by the University of Illinois College of Medicine confirms that the center is achieving substantial results in reducing recidivism among its clients.
In addition to Christiansen, leadership for the transformation has come from two chief judges, Kathryn Zenoff and Janet Holmgren; the former and current State’s Attorneys, Paul Logli and Joe Bruscato; the Public Defenders Office; the Office of Court Services.
Not all local elected officials are in sync with the transformative models, preferring the command-and-control approach. Others question the criminal justice system’s operational efficiencies and point to a lack of on-demand statistics or sluggish case management as evidence the system isn’t working.
The Rockford Register Star’s Editorial Board in late summer 2011 raised its own concerns, calling on the county and court to define clearly a comprehensive plan for improving the criminal justice system. The newspaper’s editorial board has long been an advocate for results-driven alternative programs and it has been a watchdog for how the jail sales tax revenues are spent. The board’s positions reflect the community’s perceptions that there’s a lack of cohesive, collaborative strategies in place.
There is an obvious disconnect between the partnership’s progress over the past decade and the perceptions among some in the community. It is a disconnect the partnership is addressing.
The county’s criminal justice professionals are acutely aware that the Rock River Valley perceives itself as an unsafe, crime-plagued community. They are similarly aware that some local politicians, decision-makers and opinion shapers are uncomfortable with, disbelieving of and unsupportive of approaches other than incarceration – even in the face of evidence that disproves their positions.
From 2006 to 2009, there was a steady decrease in the pending criminal caseload, a strong indicator that the court system and processes in place at that time were working.
In 2009, as the then-new State’s Attorney shifted practices and the county board cut budgets, the number of pending cases began to rise abruptly. At the same time, the number of public defenders and assistant state’s attorneys dropped significantly, a trend that continues. Case processing has clearly been affected negatively by those significant cuts in prosecutorial and defense staff, as well as by the shifts in the State’s Attorney’s approach to case management.
The 17th Judicial Circuit Court in 2012 expects to restore Saturday court, hire more prosecutors, public defenders and pre-trial services staff, consider electronic monitoring and add a trial felony courtroom. Reconfiguration of civil and criminal court time and operations has opened additional court call time for judges to handle cases in Winnebago and Boone counties. These steps should help reduce case backlog, make more effective use of existing programs and provide the culture in which the county’s model criminal justice programs can flourish.
These are part of the county-court partnership’s comprehensive strategies that are helping drive the transformation of the local courts and criminal justice systems – all being accomplished despite the continuing effects of budget reduction and the negative drumbeat from some.
Long-term success for the new models depends on three components: support from the Winnebago County Board; support from the community’s opinion shapers, such as the Rockford Register Star’s Editorial Board and political columnists; and support from Rockford’s mayor, city council and police department and the Winnebago County Sheriff.
Winnebago County Board support is crucial because it is the primary funding agent for the courts, the public defender and the prosecutor. Although these three operate independently of the county board, the county board controls their funding. If the county board fails to financially support the reallocation of funds from incarceration models to alternative models, the criminal justice system cannot complete its transformation.
Community support from politicians, law enforcement and opinion shapers is also crucial. The escalating jail population and a faulty perception that there is no comprehensive criminal justice approach to building a safe community undermine community support.
There are, however, significant points of agreement in the dissonant public discourse. Long-term success – defined as a safe community – can be built from these agreed-upon, evidence-based and statistically proven approaches.
Agreement within the dissonance: There are significant points of agreement among criminal justice experts and practitioners:
- (1) Reducing recidivism – slowing down the revolving doors of incarceration – is an important key to creating a safer community;
- (2) Alternative programs that treat or work with the “whole” person reduce recidivism and are significantly less expensive than incarceration;
- (3) Incarceration alone increases recidivism;
- (4) Specialty courts, such as drug court, mental health court, veterans court, family drug court and domestic violence court, are effective in managing court caseload and reducing recidivism;
- (5) Aggressive community law enforcement, prosecution and defense are integral to creating both the reality of and perception of a safe community;
- (6) We can no longer afford – if, indeed, we ever could – the costs of building, maintaining and staffing jails and prisons to house inmates, only to have them return again and again because they cannot function outside a cell.
Reduced recidivism is the nationally recognized standard for determining the safety of a community and for reducing crime. Across the country, criminal justice experts and decision makers are beginning to accept the need for a complex, multifaceted, sophisticated approach to criminal justice. “Lock ‘em up” is no longer the single option of choice.
1. The report: How it came about and what I did
2. Executive summary: My ten conclusions and observations from the report
3. An overview: Among the dissonance, agreement
4. The past 40 years: Changes on the national level
5. Winnebago County criminal justice system: From command-and-control to wrap-around-services
6. Crime in Winnebago County
7. The impact of the one-cent public safety sales tax
8. Alternative to incarceration: Better results. Lower costs
9. The Resource Intervention Center: A 21st century model
10. A week at the RIC