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Probation Officers Seek New Tools To Reduce Prison Numbers

Sharjeel Rizvi

Hundreds of probation officers from across Illinois are in Normal this week to learn new methods to help offenders stay in the community and further reduce the state’s incarceration rate.

The Eleventh Judicial Circuit which includes McLean County is hosting the Illinois Probation and Court Services Association training conference with about 500 probation and court services staff in attendance.

Sarge Rizvi, McLean County’s pre-trial court services coordinator, said the county is part of a nationwide push to reduce high incarceration rates that have put about two million people behind bars.

McLean County, said Rizvi, is on the forefront of those efforts that include bail reform aimed at lowering the number of defendants held in jail because they cannot pay a cash bail. Rizvi likened the efforts to the triage method used to assess the most serious patients for medical treatment.

“What we want to do is devise a system that looks at releasing lower-risk defendants out in the community that don’t pose a danger, and making sure that public safety is still secure by taking a look at high-risk individuals and either addressing their individual needs or perhaps if they’re too dangerous to be out in the community, those are the individuals who should be incarcerated," Rizvi said.

The Eleventh Judicial Circuit includes McLean, Livingston, Logan, Woodford and Ford counties. It also has implemented three problem-solving courts to defer offenders from prison by providing them with a structured probation program that includes help with employment, housing and mental health services, said Rizvi.

The mental health, veterans and drug court programs are  “another example of how we’re addressing and tackling individual needs rather than putting everyone into a one-size-fits-all category,” said Rizvi.

"We want to devise a system that looks at releasing lower-risk defendants out in the community that don't pose a danger."

Probation officers at the conference were urged by criminal justice researcher Dr. David Olson to become familiar with local trends which impact crime rates and the number of people who are placed on probation.

Data that reflects downward trends in Illinois crime, prison and probation rates is not widely known by many people – including elected officials and those working in the field of criminal justice, said Olsen, who serves as  co-director of Loyola University’s Center for Criminal Justice and Research, Policy and Practice.

“Our perception of crime is that it’s always getting worse,” said Olsen.   

A review of the numbers says otherwise, said Olsen.

A number of factors contribute to the lower numbers, said Olsen, including changes in police strategy and growing public support for reforms that send fewer people to prison.

Total criminal filings in 2017 were down 33% in 2017 and the state prison population has been reduced by about 30%, according to Olsen. In 2015, the number of people on probation also began a decrease for the first time in four decades with an 11% dip from a peak of about 140,000 offenders.

The special challenges facing veterans returning with combat injuries was the focus of a luncheon presentation by former Navy Seal Morgan Luttrell.

Luttrell shared his experience of living with a traumatic brain injury and his efforts to develop a wellness and treatment program at the University of Texas at Dallas for veterans with injuries. The lasting impact of such injuries include post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain, sleep disorders and addiction, said Luttrell, whose twin brother also served as a Navy Seal.

Veterans who suffer signs of trauma are among the candidates for veterans courts, a program that allows defendants who complete probation to have their conviction removed from their record. Probation officers provide much-needed assistance, said Luttrell.

“I don’t think you get your credit,” Luttrell told probation officers.

The conference continues marking the probation group’s 50th anniversary continues until Friday at the Uptown Marriott.

Edith began her career as a reporter with The DeWitt County Observer, a weekly newspaper in Clinton. From 2007 to June 2019, Edith covered crime and legal issues for The Pantagraph, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Illinois. She previously worked as a correspondent for The Pantagraph covering courts and local government issues in central Illinois.
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