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BLOOMINGTON — The challenging work of cutting the state's recidivism rate requires energy and resources from inside and outside prison walls, the director of the Illinois Department of Corrections told an audience Thursday in Bloomington.

The current recidivism rate of 43 percent reflects a downward trend, John Baldwin told about 50 people at a meeting at Mennonite Church of Normal and organized by Jobs Partnership, a program of the Joy Care Center.

But "43 percent is not acceptable.  We have to return people better (to the community) than when they came to us," said the former Iowa corrections director who left retirement in 2015 to lead Illinois' troubled prison system.

Volunteers like those who work with Jobs Partnership to help ex-offenders with housing, jobs and other necessities serve a critical role in helping former prisoners stay out of prison, said Baldwin.  Recidivism, measured as a return within three years of release, is detrimental on several levels, he said.

"Recidivism creates more victims and is a waste of taxpayer money.  We need to give people a chance to not come back to us," said Baldwin.

Baldwin pointed to a reduction in the prison population to a number below 40,000 for the first time in many years as one of the pay-offs for IDOC efforts.

Some serious challenges remain, however, and the solutions will take years to be fully realized, Baldwin acknowledged.  The state is dealing with a preliminary injunction in a federal lawsuit over deficiencies in its mental health treatment to 12,000 inmates and another federal lawsuit on medical care is set to go to trial in the fall.     

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The mental health care issues can be traced to poor decisions more than a decade ago when treatment was severely curtailed, according to Baldwin.

"We have to fundamentally improve the level of psychiatric and medical treatment to all people. It is imperative," said Baldwin, noting that almost a third of inmates are mentally ill.

Baldwin heard from audience members who face difficulties securing jobs since their release. Changes in state and federal law is needed , said one former offender, to allow more access to jobs.

Baldwin agreed. The state's reentry center in Kewanee is "the nation's and Illinois' first attempt to try to help people with major sentences not come back," said Baldwin.

The 600-bed facility that once housed juvenile offenders operates a life skills program for men who are preparing for release after long sentences.

Changes in how Illinois prisons operate will be measured under new data collection mandates. For example, Kewanee participants will be monitored after their release to determine what, if any, changes should be made to the program, said Baldwin.

Jobs Partnership leader Michele Cook said the cooperation between the Bloomington program and IDOC helps offenders build a connection with the community before they leave prison.  Since 2011, about 1,400 ex-offenders have been served by the Bloomington program "and we've only lost 19 back to the Department of Corrections," said Cook.

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Contact Edith Brady-Lunny at (309) 820-3276. Follow her on Twitter: @pg_blunny

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