Stronger Communities Equal a Safer Illinois

by David Hiller, President & CEO 

This March, we helped sponsor a symposium, "The $2 Billion Question: Can Illinois Improve Public Safety and Spend Less on Incarceration?" at the Union League Club of Chicago. Elected officials, business leaders, policy makers and funders took part in a discussion that addressed the critical issue of reducing incarceration rates and improving safety in Illinois.

Keeping in mind that the population of Illinois is more than 12.5 million, here are Illinois' facts:

  • Approximately 70 percent of prisoners are jailed for non-violent crimes
  • Approximately 48,000 adults are incarcerated annually
  • 3.6 percent of our state budget ($1.3 billion out of $35.3 billion) is spent on incarcerated adults in state and local jails, which accounts for approximately $27,000 per inmate.
  • 48 percent of inmates in state prisons don't have a high school diploma or GED

These startling statistics are rooted in decades of tough-on-crime legislation, the war on drugs, and harsh sentencing practices, rather than prevention efforts. They have failed. These practices have not only led to a record number of people being locked up, they have also drained Illinois of vital resources, while having only a minimal effect on the crime rate.

However, there is work being done to reverse these trends and redeploy funding to prevention programs that help individuals stay away from crime and promote stronger, safer communities.

Through the McCormick Foundation’s work with local organizations, we know that an investment in high-quality early care and education is a critical component of public safety. Research shows that children who participate in quality preschool programs are 20 percent less likely to be arrested for a felony or be incarcerated as a young adult. Organizations such as Fight Crime: Invest in Kids Illinois are using hard-nosed research that illustrates proven strategies on how to prevent children from becoming criminals, and sharing that information with policy makers, the media and the public.

Another key ingredient for building safer communities is developing individuals with the necessary skills they need to gain and maintain employment. Individuals with barriers due to lack of skills, minimal or no job experience, or ex-offender status, have a harder time securing jobs. Heartland Human Care Services’ Chicago FarmWorks program trains formerly-incarcerated and homeless adults to work in the urban landscaping and food production industries. These opportunities give individuals valuable roles in their communities and keep them from reentering a world of crime.

Even though there are a number of successful organizations throughout Illinois, there is more work to be done such as increasing funding in prevention, education and workforce development programs.

We all must take responsibility and help strengthen our communities for the long haul. Here is what you can do:

  • Fund quality early care and education programs
  • Participate and invest in prevention programs for youth, such as mentoring, sports and after-school programs
  • Invest in workforce development programs

While a good deal of work will be required in Springfield, it must start with each of us.


"I Am the Guy You Play Later: Sheriffs," Chiefs and Prosecutors Urge America to Cut Crime by Investing Now in High-Quality Early Education and Care." Report by: Fight Crime: Invest in Kids Illinois, p.1

The Chicago Lawyers' Committee's Review of Alternatives for Non-Violent Offenders, 2010, p.1


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