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Guest Column                                                        

James E. Gierach
Task force shuns ideas to
break drug-crime-jail-tax cycle


Gov. Jim Edgar's Task Force on Crime and Corrections missed a golden opportunity to fashion solutions to the problems of increasing violent crime, prison overcrowding, skyrocketing taxes and greater narcotic drug availability. Instead of making daring and innovative recommendations designed to break the drug-crime-jail-tax cycle which threatens the solvency of local governments, schools "at the crossroads" and state government itself, the task force has recommended the expenditure of $91 million in new prison construction.

The task force reported that which everyone knows: "despite tougher sentencing laws, crime itself has not been deterred, [and] longer sentences . . . have imposed staggering costs upon our State." However, contradicting its own assertion that "the Task Force has learned the lesson of the past 15 years: building prisons is not a cost-effective solution to the crowding problem," the task force has recommended the construction of a maximum security facility called "Super-Max," or more aptly, "Super-Tax" (500 beds), a geriatric prison (350 beds), three new "class X-shaped" cellhouses at three existing institutions (1,344 beds) and the conversion of Assumption High School in East St. Louis into a prison (600 beds).

The operational costs associated with the proposed construction (2,794 beds) plus the opening of 1,902 new prison beds on-line Big Muddy (952 beds), Greene County (200 beds), DuQuoin (100 beds), Paris (200 beds) and Chicago (200 beds) would annually drain another $75 million from state coffers.

But most disturbingly, the task force final report concludes with the lamentation, "the prison crowding crisis is, despite overwhelming proportions, merely symptomatic of larger problems that still must be examined and addressed." When, by whom and why not now?

Not less than 124 times in 103 pages, the task force final report uses the terms "drugs, substance abuse, drug offenders, drug offenses, controlled substance, illegal drugs, drug testing, drug treatment, drug use and drug education." But not one word, or one of its 26 recommendations, dared to address the urgent need for a new drug policy to replace the prohibitionist madness that slaughtered eight people Capone-style in a New York drug house in February, "The 1993 St. Valentine's Day Massacre," and made a corpse of the 15-year-old boy pulled from a Chicago sewer in March.

The robberies, carjackings, burglaries, thefts and shootings, cresting into an ever-larger crime wave caused by the addicts' endless search for money to pay the drug dealers, has no equivalent, except for the daily killings, gang recruitment and gun proliferation incidental to turf wars triggered by governmental sponsorship of the drug prohibition commandment and black market drug prices.

Sidestepping a central issue of the 1990s, prohibition-driven crime, the task force curtsied to family values and retreated to the position that crime prevention was "beyond the scope of the Governor's charge." To the contrary, Gov. Edgar charged the task force with the duty "to analyze current prison policies, statutes, sentencing and other factors that influence inmate populations." Not drugs, but drug-war-driven crime is the overwhelming "other factor."

One task force member attempted to raise the issue of decriminalization or legalization of drugs, but the task force chair, Anton Valukas, immediately foreclosed any discussion of the subject, redirecting the conversation back to boot camps.

Each of five former Illinois inmates who testified before the task force attested to the fact that drug addiction had led them to crime and ultimately to prison. The task force found this information valuable with respect to its recommendations aimed to reduce recidivism. But educational, vocational and drug treatment programs, while good for inmates, were not recommended by the task force as a means to prevent crime in Illinois communities in the first instance.

. . . the task force curtsied to family values and retreated to the position that crime prevention was 'beyond the scope of the Governor's charge'

Any thoughtful reader of the task force final report must wince when contrasting the task force recommendation for additional inmate educational programs on one page with the recommendation for the conversion of Assumption High School into Assumption Correctional Center on another page.

One former drug dealer was attracted to a task force meeting by newspaper accounts. The reformed drug dealer, purportedly the largest supplier of drugs to prison inmates in another state while incarcerated there himself, came to offer his expertise. His unheard message was simple: Money drives the drug business. His precise words when asked why Illinois is inundated with drugs: "It's the money." Indeed, the annual gross sales for illicit drugs in the Cook County area were estimated at $7 billion (more than the annual gross sales

10/May 1993 /Illinois Issues

of Walgreens), according to a Chicago Sun-Times special report December 20.

Visitors to the governor's task force were not heard, including the reformed drug dealer and this author, because testimony was limited to invited guests only. Nor were outsiders welcome to a similar task force in 1989 charged with addressing the Cook County crime and corrections crisis. Then, as now with the governor's task force, crime prevention advocates were not welcome to participate. The same solutions muffled in 1989 have been forced upon the governor's task force, memorialized in Appendix B of its final report.

Crime prevention suggestions not discussed by the task force and buried in Appendix B include the following: a new addict-alternative drug program, gun control, a new drug informant strategy, pre-crime drug treatment on demand, expansion of educational prosecution-deferment programs such as Probation Challenge, a gun-for-the job exchange program, a gang leader scholarship program, the creation of a statewide municipal commitee on gangs, a minimum wage job program for idle probationers, a derelict building razing program, and the creation of a state sentencing review board.

The task force deserves to be taken to task for missing the opportunity of the decade to break the drug-crime-jail-tax cycle that has plagued Illinois taxpayers and crime victims for the past 15 years, an opportunity the task force answered with recommendations for more expensive prison construction and cheap prison substitutues.

Like many politicians, the task force lacked the courage, or the vision, to tear the drug-war death mask from the face of America here in Illinois. It seems that if Illinoisans are to have meaningful reform of the criminal justice system, and relief from the lost war on drugs, rampaging crime, prison crowding and skyrocketing taxes, then we, the people, must force the task upon ourselves. *

James E. Gierach, the youngest delegate to the Sixth Illinois Constitutional Convention, served as an assistant state's attorney of Cook County in the early 1970s. He ran for Cook County state's attorney in the 1992 Democratic primary. He practices law in Oak Lawn.

May 1993/Illinois Issues/11

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