Ex-offenders’ interests

By all accounts, Fayette County is one of the whitest regions in Illinois, but you wouldn’t know it by the latest census count. The secret to Fayette’s diversity is the Vandalia Correctional Center, the local prison where 95.7 percent of the county’s black population sits behind bars.

Like Illinois’ other overwhelmingly white, rural prison communities, Fayette officials count on the prisoners sent there to pad their local population numbers. In doing so, they’re able to wield the increased influence in the Statehouse that comes with a growing constituency–”even if it is based on a growing prison population, which has increased 18 percent since 1995.

But the enhanced political power has done little to advance policies that could help inmate –”most of whom are from Chicago–”get jobs when they return home to Cook County.

The Chicago Reporter analyzed the voting records of lawmakers representing Illinois’ 21 most inmate-heavy House districts. Of the two-dozen bills analyzed, the Reporter found:

— Six House members representing the state’s 21 most inmate-heavy districts voted at least two-thirds of the time against legislation around ex-offender jobs and education;
–- Eight voted against those same measures at least half of the time;
–- And, only one House member signed on as a co-sponsor to ex-offender legislation.

With a remap of political districts at stake next year, the U.S. Census Bureau finessed its guidelines to allow state officials to decide how to count prisoners. State Rep. LaShawn Ford, a Democrat from Chicago, introduced the Prisoner Census Adjustment Act, HB 4650. Like a similar measure approved in Maryland this spring, the bill would require Illinois to count its roughly 45,000 inmates at their pre-incarceration addresses.

Considering that Cook County lost 81,681 residents over the past decade, adding the prisoners–”26,304 of whom, at last count, were from Chicago–”would give the region more weight in next year’s redistricting process. “Proper representation,” the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative’s Peter Wagner suggests, “would lead to different state policies.”

Ford managed to move the measure out of committee this spring. However, it failed to generate enough support for a full roll call. Not a single representative or senator from any of Illinois’ prison districts signed on as a co-sponsor. Five of the measure’s six sponsors were from Chicago. “I couldn’t get the 60 votes,” Ford said, “particularly from the downstate voters.”

Among the chief opponents is state Rep. Ron Stephens, a Republican, from Highland whose district includes Fayette County’s Vandalia Correctional Center. Stephens attempted to throw up legislative roadblocks to the bill by challenging its cost and the state’s authority to preempt prison towns’ home rule authority. “Representative Ford would get the money but the folks I represent would be taking care of the prisoners,” Stephens told the Chicago Tribune earlier this year. “The system is fair now.”

The rub, state Rep. Monique Davis, a Chicago Democrat, said is that lawmakers like Stephens–”who himself voted 68 percent of the time against the measures analyzed by the Reporter–”are doing little to stop the revolving door from swinging at Illinois’ prisons. “On legislation that would assist inmates in any way–”when it comes to reducing or halting recidivism –” these legislators always vote –˜no,'” she said.

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