05/05/2011 05:27 pm ET Updated Jul 05, 2011

Director Tony Godinez and the Challenges Facing the Illinois Department of Corrections

As one of the country's oldest prison reform organizations and the only group that monitors Illinois' adult and juvenile prison system, the John Howard Association congratulates Salvador "Tony" Godinez on his appointment to become the Director of the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC).

Director Godinez is exceptionally qualified. With almost 40 years of corrections experience, he has done everything from working in juvenile parole to his most recent job as the Executive Director of the Cook County Department of Corrections. This experience should serve him well as he confronts the significant challenges facing IDOC.

When Director Godinez began his career in 1973, Illinois had less than 10,000 people in its prisons. Today IDOC is one of the state's largest agencies, with a $1 billion budget, approximately 11,000 employees, almost 49,000 prisoners, and more than 33,000 people on parole.

Despite the money and resources we spend on our prison system, Illinois has a recidivism rate of almost 52 percent, which means that more than half of all inmates who leave prison return within three years of their release. And while most states are finding ways to safely reduce their prison populations, Illinois has added almost 4,000 people to its prisons in the past two years, with a growing number of women, low-level offenders, and elderly inmates.

Everyone wants a cost-effective criminal justice system. Illinois' high recidivism rate and growing prison population make clear that we must do a better job of ensuring that the money we spend on corrections holds lawbreakers accountable while keeping the public safe.

First, we must recognize that prison should be reserved for the worst offenders. This is not a call to be soft on crime, but to be smart about how we punish people. Research shows that prison is an expensive way to make low-level offenders worse, whereas alternatives to incarceration, such as Adult Redeploy, which funds counties to use community service plans for non-violent offenders, cost less money and are more effective.

If we can reduce the significant number of low-level, non-violent offenders sent to prison through programs like Adult Redeploy and decrease the state's prison population, IDOC can do a better job making sure that the remaining inmates get what they need to successfully reenter society.

One reason why Illinois has such a high recidivism rate is that state funding has not kept pace with the growth in prison population. Consequently, there are not enough resources to staff educational and vocational programs that help inmates get jobs and stay out of prison.

This lack of programming means that most inmates spend the majority of time in their cells rather than preparing to reenter society. While ordinary citizens may cringe at the idea of spending taxpayer money to educate inmates, putting prisoners in classes is the best way to reduce recidivism and increase public safety.

Prison education does not simply benefit inmates, but it also helps create a safer environment for corrections officers. When inmates have nothing to do but sit in their cells, they are more likely to get frustrated, act out, and become violent, which puts everyone in the prison at risk.

In outlining some of the problems facing IDOC, it is important to point out that Director Godinez cannot control the number of people sent to prison; however, there is much he can do to help ensure that Illinois has a more cost-effective prison system.

Director Godinez can work with legislators, law enforcement, communities, and prison reform groups to safely decrease the state's prison population by advocating for the expansion of diversion programs like Adult Redeploy.

He can save taxpayer money by seriously re-examining the costly use of disciplinary segregation and isolation at Tamms Correctional Center.

He can increase educational opportunities by recruiting armies of volunteers to teach inmates, as is done in a number of other states. And he can give particular attention to the growing numbers of long-term prisoners who are currently being warehoused without jobs, without educational programs, and without the opportunity to transfer to medium security facilities, regardless of their behavior.

And finally, he can champion programs that have significantly cut recidivism rates, like IDOC's drug treatment prisons, Southwestern Illinois Correction Center and Sheridan Correction Center, and the Moms and Babies program at Decatur Correctional Center that allows low-level, non-violent pregnant inmates to deliver and care for their children as they serve their sentences.

For more than 100 years, the John Howard Association has served as Illinois' prison watchdog. We look forward to working with Director Godinez as he begins his tenure.