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A Portrait of Prisoner Reentry in Illinois

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Document date: April 17, 2003
Released online: April 17, 2003

The Justice Policy Center (JPC) carries out nonpartisan research to inform the national dialogue on crime, justice, and community safety. For more information on JPC's reentry research, visit http://jpc.urban.org/reentry. To receive monthly email updates on JPC research, send an email to JPC@ui.urban.org.

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

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Executive Summary

What Is the Policy Context Surrounding Prisoner Reentry in Illinois?

How Are Prisoners Released in Illinois?

Who Is Returning Home?

How Are Prisoners Prepared for Reentry?

CHAPTER 5 Where Are Released Prisoners Going?



Executive Summary

Reentry Defined

For the purposes of this report, "reentry" is defined as the process of leaving the adult state prison system and returning to society. The concept of reentry is applicable to a variety of contexts in which individuals transition from incarceration to freedom, including release from jails, federal institutions, and juvenile facilities. We have limited our scope to those sentenced to serve time in state prison in order to focus on individuals who have been convicted of the most serious offenses, who have been removed from communities for longer periods of time, who would be eligible for state prison programming while incarcerated, and who are managed by state correctional and parole systems.

This report describes the process of prisoner reentry by examining the policy context surrounding reentry in Illinois, the characteristics of Illinois' returning inmates, the geographic distribution of returning prisoners, and the social and economic climates of the communities that are home to the highest concentrations of returning prisoners. This report does not attempt to evaluate a specific reentry program or empirically assess Illinois' reentry policies and practices. Rather, the report consolidates existing data on incarceration and release trends and presents a new analysis of data on Illinois prisoners released in 2001. The data used for this report were derived from several sources—the Illinois Department of Corrections, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, and Census data compiled by the Metro Chicago Information Center. Highlights from the report are presented below.

Historical Incarceration and Release Trends. Illinois' incarceration and reentry trends mirror those observed at the national level. Between 1970 and 2001, the Illinois prison population increased more than 500 percent, from 7,326 to 44,348 people.1 By the end of calendar year 2000, Illinois had the eighth highest prison population in the United States2 and had an incarceration rate of 371 prisoners per 100,000 residents.3 The increase in the Illinois prison population can be attributed to two main factors: increased admissions to prison and increased lengths of stay for incarcerated offenders. Increased admissions over the past two decades are the product of: (1) a dramatic increase in the number of drug law violators sentenced to prison; (2) a steady increase in the number of violent offenders sentenced to prison; and (3) a significant increase in parole revocations of released prisoners. Longer lengths of stay over the past two decades are driven by changes in sentencing policies, such as determinate sentencing and "truth in sentencing." Despite the long-term trend of increases in Illinois' prison population, in 2001 the population dropped marginally owing to increasing numbers of drug offenders and parole violators cycling through the prison system on relatively short sentences. Illinois' release patterns reflect these admissions and population trends (figure 1): In 2001, 30,068 men and women were released from Illinois prisons4—more than two and a half times the number released two decades ago (11,715 in 1983).5

Preparation for Release. The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) offers a range of facility-based programs and services in which prisoners may participate, including education, substance abuse treatment, employment readiness, and physical and mental health treatment. Since FY1991, IDOC has also required prisoners on post-release supervision to participate in a prerelease education, preparation, and planning program called PreStart. Community-based programming has also been enhanced in an effort to reduce the numbers of inmates returned to prison. Among these programs are Electronic Detention, Community Correctional Centers/Adult Transitional Centers, and Day Reporting Centers. These facility- and community-based programs, however, are serving only a very small percentage of Illinois' inmate and parolee populations.

Profile of Prisoners Released in 2001. The majority of released prisoners were male (90 percent) and black (67 percent). Most prisoners were relatively young at the time of their release, with 48 percent under the age of 31; the average age at release was 32. Over one-third had been serving time for drug offenses. The average length of time served was approximately one and one-third years, with over 60 percent of released inmates having served less than one year. More than half had been in an Illinois prison at least once before, and 27 percent had been admitted to prison based on technical violations of their parole.

Life on the Outside: Parole Supervision. Eighty-three percent of prisoners released during 2001 were released to supervision with the condition that they report to a parole officer. The number of people under supervision in Illinois has increased 60 percent from 18,882 in 1990 to 30,199 in 2000.6 The ratio of supervised to unsupervised releasees has, however, remained relatively stable.

Geographic Distribution of Released Prisoners. The vast majority (97 percent) of Illinois prisoners released in 2001 returned to Illinois communities; of those, 51 percent returned to Chicago (15,488 released prisoners). Just 6 of Chicago's 77 communities—Austin, Humboldt Park, North Lawndale, Englewood, West Englewood, and East Garfield Park—accounted for 34 percent of prisoners returning to Chicago in 2001. These neighborhoods tend to be more economically and socially disadvantaged than the average Chicago community.


This report examines the prisoner reentry phenomenon in Illinois. Prisoner reentry—the process of leaving prison and returning to society—has become a pressing issue both in Illinois and nationwide, and with good reason. Rising incarceration rates over the past quarter-century have resulted in more and more inmates being released from prison each year. Nationwide, an estimated 630,000 inmates were released from state and federal prisons in 2001, a fourfold increase over the past two decades.7 Thus, released prisoners, their families, and the communities to which they return must cope with the challenges of reentry on a much greater scale than ever before.

There are many challenges to prisoner reentry. More prisoners nationwide are returning home having spent longer terms behind bars,8 exacerbating their already significant challenges of finding employment, obtaining housing,9 and reconnecting with family. Prisoners today are typically less prepared for reintegration, less connected to community-based social structures, and more likely to have health or substance abuse problems than in the past.10 In addition to these personal circumstances, limited availability of jobs, housing, and social services in a community can affect the returning prisoner's ability to reintegrate.11 These challenges affect more than returning prisoners and their families; they can also have serious public safety implications for the communities to which prisoners return. Developing a thorough understanding of the characteristics of returning prisoners and the challenges they face is an important first step in shaping public policy toward improving the safety and welfare of all citizens.

Reentry concerns are most pressing in major metropolitan areas across the country, to which about two-thirds of the prisoners released in 1996 returned—up from 50 percent in 1984.12 Within central cities, released prisoners may be more concentrated in a few neighborhoods.13 High concentrations of returning prisoners can generate great costs to their communities, including potential increases in crime and public safety expenditures, greater public health risks, and high rates of unemployment and homelessness.

In many ways, the dimensions and challenges of prisoner reentry observed on the national level are mirrored in the state of Illinois. In 2001, 30,068 men and women were released from Illinois prisons14—more than two and a half times the number released two decades ago (11,715 in 1983).15 Just over half of those prisoners (51 percent; 15,488) returned to one jurisdiction in the state, the city of Chicago. This group of returning prisoners was further concentrated in a small number of neighborhoods in Chicago. Just 6 of Chicago's 77 communities—Austin, Humboldt Park, North Lawndale, Englewood, West Englewood, and East Garfield Park—accounted for 34 percent of prisoners returning to Chicago in 2001, or 4,398 released prisoners. These high-concentration communities in Chicago, which already face great social and economic disadvantages, may experience the impact of reentry to a magnified degree.

Government leaders, corrections officials, local organizations, and service providers are keenly aware of the reentry challenges in Illinois, and they have begun to use both research and programmatic knowledge to address them. In 2002, the Chicago Urban League released two research reports focused on ex-offender reentry: Navigating Reentry: The Experiences and Perceptions of Ex-offenders Seeking Employment16 and The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, Jobs and Community in Chicago, Illinois and the Nation.17 Both reports provide useful information about prisoner reentry in Illinois and Chicago, specifically as it relates to identifying barriers to ex-offenders' social and economic advancement following release. Also in 2002, the Illinois Department of Corrections was awarded $2,000,000 by the U.S. Department of Justice (Office of Justice Programs) as part of the federal government's Going Home initiative, which supports state-run reentry programs nationwide. This grant provides Illinois with the opportunity to continue and expand upon current reentry initiatives, specifically in the North Lawndale community of Chicago, which has one of the highest concentrations of ex-offenders in the state.18 The Going Home program will provide services to juveniles and young adults who are at high risk of returning to prison. These services will include assessment; case management; cognitive restructuring; a voucher pool for treatment, transitional housing, employment training, and placement assistance; and specialized youth services.19 The stated goal of the program, which is supported by local and state partners,20 is to develop a system that successfully rehabilitates ex-offenders in the North Lawndale community and, ultimately, to apply that system across the entire state.21

Other organizations and agencies in Illinois have made reentry an important item on their agendas, including the Safer Foundation, Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities (TASC), the Chicago Alliance for Neighborhood Safety (CANS),22 Project JOBS,23 and the Illinois Workforce Advantage Program.24 For example, the Safer Foundation in Chicago, the largest community-based provider of employment services for ex-offenders in the United States, provides job placements and support services in order to help ex-offenders acquire and maintain employment and lead a crime-free life. The program includes the use of volunteers, a peer group instructional approach, work release center operations, and focused fundraising techniques.25 TASC, a nonprofit organization that specializes in social service technology and delivery, has also focused efforts on its over 4,000 adult clients who are reentering the community following incarceration. TASC helps clients gain access to substance abuse treatment, housing, and employment services, and has established a program entitled Winners' Circles, which are peer-led support groups for ex-offenders who are committed to remaining drug- and crime-free.26

These various efforts are positive steps toward improving reentry outcomes at the state level and in the city of Chicago, the most critical reentry location in the state. The premise of these programs is that a well-designed reentry system can enhance public safety, reduce returns to prison, control corrections expenditures, and help prisoners achieve successful long-term reintegration. In other words, these efforts could result in positive outcomes not only for individuals returning home, but for their families and communities as well.

This report is designed to contribute to the efforts currently underway in Illinois to enhance public safety and improve the prospects for successful prisoner reintegration in the state. It is important to note that this report does not attempt to evaluate a specific reentry program, nor does it empirically assess Illinois' reentry policies and practices. Rather, the process and characteristics of prisoner reentry in Illinois are described by answering several questions, which frame the organization of the report:

  • What is the policy context surrounding prisoner reentry in Illinois? How do state sentencing and post-release supervision practices affect the Illinois reentry picture?
  • What are the characteristics of Illinois' returning inmates?
  • How are Illinois prisoners prepared for reentry?
  • What are the Illinois communities with the greatest concentrations of returning inmates? What are the economic and social climates of those communities?

The report begins by describing the reentry process at the state level, including the policy context of changes in sentencing and incarceration statutes over time. Chapter 2 examines how prisoners in Illinois are released and describes current post-release supervision practices. Chapter 3 draws on IDOC data to describe the characteristics of inmates released from Illinois prisons in 2001. Chapter 4 describes the institutional- and community-based programming IDOC offers to help prepare inmates for successful reintegration. Chapter 5 offers an analysis of reentry in the city of Chicago, to which the largest number and percentage of Illinois releases return. Chapter 5 also describes and discusses the characteristics of Chicago neighborhoods and the unique challenges the city faces with regard to the reintegration of ex-prisoners, and includes a spatial analysis of neighborhood areas to which a large percentage of prisoners return. The report concludes with a chapter summarizing findings and next steps for future research. It is our hope that this report will provide a useful, factual foundation for individuals and organizations working to improve reentry outcomes for prisoners, their families and communities, and the general public in Illinois.

1. Illinois Department of Corrections (2002) Statistical Presentation 2001. Springfield, IL, www.idoc.state.il.us/subsections/reports/statistical_presentations. 2001 (Accessed February 8, 2003).

2. Beck, A., and P. Harrison (2001) Prisoners in 2000. Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.

3. These population figures are based on custody counts, include inmates with a sentence of more than one year, include an undetermined number with a sentence of one year, and also include 822 inmates on electronic detention (Beck and Harrison (2001) Prisoners in 2000).

4. This statistic is based on released prisoners who had been sentenced to one year or more and does not include duplicate records of inmates who were released from IDOC more than once during the course of the calendar year.

5. Illinois Department of Corrections (1999) Human Services Plan—Fiscal Years 1998-2000. Springfield, IL.

6. Hughes, T., D. Wilson, and A. Beck (2001) Trends in State Parole, 1990-2000. Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.

7. Office of Justice Programs, Office of Congressional and Public Affairs (2002) "Attorney General Ashcroft Announces Nationwide Effort to Reintegrate Offenders Back into Communities" (Press Release, July 15, 2002). Available at http://www.usnewswire.com/OJP/docs/OJP02214.html (Accessed October 2002).

8. Lynch, J., and W. Sabol (2001) Prisoner Reentry in Perspective. Crime Policy Report, vol. 3. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute Press.

9. The Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), for example, considers criminal history as part of its admission criteria and bans individuals convicted of drug-related or violent crimes from public housing for up to 3 years. However, CHA admission polices also allow for exceptions to this ban if the individual has successfully completed a rehabilitation program or the circumstances surrounding the offense no longer exist. Source: Chicago Housing Authority. Management Analysis and Planning Department. Inter-Office Memorandum, March 24, 2003.

10. Austin, J. (2001) "Prisoner Reentry: Current Trends, Practices, and Issues." Crime and Delinquency 47 (3): 314-334; Hammett, T.M., C. Roberts, and S. Kennedy (2001) "Health-Related Issues in Prisoner Reentry: Crime and Delinquency 47 (3): 390-409; Lynch and Sabol (2001) Prisoner Reentry in Perspective.

11. For an in-depth discussion of prisoner reentry nationwide, see Travis, J., A. Solomon, and M. Waul (2001) From Prison to Home: The Dimensions and Consequences of Prisoner Reentry. Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute.

12. Lynch and Sabol (2001) Prisoner Reentry in Perspective.

13. Ibid.

14. This statistic is based on released prisoners who had been sentenced to one year or more, and does not include duplicate records of inmates who were released from IDOC more than once during the course of the calendar year.

15. Illinois Department of Corrections (1999) Human Services Plan—Fiscal Years 1998-2000.

16. Festen, M., and S. Fischer (January 2002) Navigating Reentry: The Experiences and Perceptions of Ex-Offenders Seeking Employment. Chicago Urban League.

17. Street, P. (2002) The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, Jobs, and Community in Chicago, Illinois and the Nation. Chicago Urban League.

18. Dighton, D. (Summer 2002) "The Challenge of Reentry: Keeping Ex-offenders Free." The Compiler. Chicago, IL: Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.

19. Ibid.

20. Local partners are the Chicago Mayor's Office of Workforce Development, the Chicago Police Department, the Chicago Department of Human Services, North Lawndale Employment Network, Chicago Project for Violence Prevention, Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, Safer Foundation, North Lawndale Work Group on Balanced and Restorative Justice, and Chicago Public Schools. State partners are IDOC, State Board of Education, Office of the Governor, Illinois Department of Human Services, Illinois Workforce Investment Board, Department of Employment Security, Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, and other faith- and community-based organizations.

21. Dighton (2002) "The Challenge of Reentry: Keeping Ex-offenders Free."

22. In addition to its Operation Overhaul campaign, CANS organizers are educating community residents on prisoner reentry issues and holding forums in communities where the ex-offender return rate is the highest. For more detailed information on CANS and its reentry activities, visit www.chicagocans.org.

23. Project JOBS is a broker of services (not a direct service provider) that builds partnerships with neighborhood organizations and helps to increase their capacity to serve neighborhood residents more effectively, promoting self-sufficiency among neighborhood residents by increasing levels of employment, reducing barriers to work and career mobility, and improving the quality of supportive services. In its 2000-2001 Annual Report, Project JOBS reports having developed a strategy to use $5,000 of its $50,000 in grant money to purchase bonds for program participants of member organizations who are either ex-offenders or have poor credit histories. It also reports having developed and introduced new program concepts to the organization's board and staff that include an ex-offender employment strategy. This four-phase employment strategy will include research of existing services/programs, focus groups with ex-offenders to hear their needs, a pilot program that tests theories and identifies problems raised, and the full-scale implementation of a best practices approach to serving this population through the Project JOBS member organizations (Project JOBS (2001) Project JOBS: Joint Opportunities Bring Success. Annual Report January 2000-March 2001). Interviews with Project JOBS member organizations indicate that 21 percent of agencies consider ex-offender status a barrier to employment, and 40 percent of member agencies would like to see more employer outreach specific to the issues that their clients face, including ex-offenders (Liebrecht, M., and M. Hellwig (2001) Employment Services Evaluation: Project JOBS. Chicago, IL: Policy Research Action Group).

24. The Illinois Workforce Advantage Program is one of the governor's initiatives targeting ex-offenders. It provides an infusion of state and local resources to improve the overall environment in distressed communities, which tend to be home for many ex-offenders (Dighton (2002) "The Challenge of Reentry: Keeping Ex-Offenders Free").

25. For more detailed information about the Safer Foundation and its ex-offender programs, see National Institute of Justice, National Institute of Corrections, Office of Correctional Education (June 1998) Chicago's Safer Foundation: A Road Back for Ex-Offenders. NIJ Program Focus (NCJ 167575).

26. For more detailed information about TASC and its ex-offender programs, see TASC Reports (Spring 2002) Restoring Citizenship of Illinois Ex-Offenders, or visit www.illinoistasc.org. See also Dighton (2002) "The Challenge of Reentry: Keeping Ex-Offenders Free."

About the Authors

Nancy G. La Vigne is a Senior Research Associate at the Urban Institute, where she directs several projects related to prisoner reentry, including Returning Home: Understanding the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry, a multi-state, longitudinal study of the reentry experience. Her other research interests include the geographic analysis of crime, situational crime prevention, and community policing. Dr. La Vigne has 12 years of experience conducting criminal justice research, and has previous experience in the areas of crime policy and the legislative process. Prior to her current position, she was founding Director of the National Institute of Justice's Crime Mapping Research Center. Dr. La Vigne's other work experience includes consulting for the Police Executive Research Forum, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, and the National Development and Research Institute. She also served as Research Director for the Texas Punishment Standards Commission. Dr. La Vigne has authored articles in journals, chapters in edited volumes, and textbooks and monographs in the areas of crime prevention, policing, and spatial analysis. She holds a Ph.D. from Rutgers University and a Master's in Public Affairs from the University of Texas.

Cynthia A. Mamalian is an independent consultant to the Urban Institute and other criminal justice and victim service agencies in the Washington, D.C., area. Her primary research interests include domestic violence and child abuse and neglect. Prior to consulting, Dr. Mamalian worked as a Senior Analyst and Social Science Analyst for five years for the Office of Research and Evaluation at the National Institute of Justice. She also previously served as associate director for the Center for Crime Prevention Studies at Rutgers University. She holds a Ph.D. and Master's in Criminal Justice from Rutgers University.

Jeremy Travis is a Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute and is co-chair of the Reentry Roundtable—a group of prominent academics, practitioners, service providers, and community leaders working to advance policies and innovations on prisoner reentry that reflect solid research. Christy Visher is a Principal Research Associate at the Urban Institute and is the Principal Investigator of the Returning Home: Understanding the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry study.


The authors would like to thank the many individuals and organizations who made valuable contributions to this report. The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), and specifically Steve Karr, provided the data that serve as the backbone of the analysis in this report. IDOC Director Donald Snyder; Tom Roth, Deputy Chief of the Administrative Services Division; and Nancy Miller, Chief of the Bureau of Operations, provided information on prison programming and the overall policy context of reentry in Illinois. Woody Carter and Wyla Diab of the Metro Chicago Information Center (MCIC) provided demographic data on Chicago neighborhoods. Barbara Parthasarathy and Jason Sidorski of the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center prepared the maps included in this report. David Olson of the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (ICJIA) and Loyola University provided guidance, information, and valuable feedback on earlier drafts of this report. Emmy Hong from the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University collected the data on Chicago-based services for returning prisoners. Nancy Morris from the University of Maryland at College Park assisted with data analysis. Vera Kachnowski and Terence Dunworth from the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center also provided feedback and guidance on earlier drafts of this report. The Urban Institute's David Williams designed the layout and formatted the text and graphics of this report. Finally, we thank our funders and program officers, who provided both the resources and guidance to make this report a reality: the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and ICJIA. Specifically, we would like to thank Julia Stasch of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and David Olson and Gerard Ramker of ICJIA.

Returning Home: Understanding the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry

This Portrait of Prisoner Reentry in Illinois is part of a larger Urban Institute initiative entitled Returning Home: Understanding the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry. The purpose of Returning Home is to develop a deeper understanding of the reentry experiences of returning prisoners, their families, and their communities. With support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), and the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (ICJIA), the Urban Institute has launched Returning Home in Illinois as its first full study site. This research project involves interviews with prisoners before and after their release from prison; interviews with released prisoners' family members; focus groups with residents in communities to which many prisoners return; analysis of extant data on local indicators of community well-being; and interviews with community stakeholders. State laws and policies will also be reviewed to provide the overall political and policy context. The results of the Illinois study will be published in 2004 and will also be a part of a larger cross-state analysis based on Returning Home research conducted in Maryland, Ohio, and Texas.

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