I hurried on to the train Thursday, glanced down at my boarding pass and then saw I was seated next to a newly released inmate.
The cheap sneakers, ill-fitting clothes and cellblock tats gave it away.
I knew I was in for a long journey from Chicago to Springfield.
The Illinois Department of Corrections gives prisoners who have served their time Amtrak tickets allowing them to return to their families.
The young man sitting next to me had just finished serving four years at the Danville Correctional Center.
He had visited his mother and brother in Chicago and was heading to Springfield to live with his girlfriend.
“When I got home I found out my little brother was hooked on crack cocaine. Can you believe that? He’s just 17 and he’s hooked on crack,” my seatmate said as he popped open a can of Miller High Life stashed in a bag under his seat
I said, “Uh huh” and tried to bury my nose a little deeper in my book.
Prisoners going free is a subject that makes us uncomfortable. Why? It’s sometimes hard to know what to say.
What do you say to someone who has just been sprung? Congratulations? Best wishes? Keep your nose clean?
In Illinois, 47 percent of inmates released end up returning to prison.
That’s an embarrassment.
No nation locks up a higher percentage of its citizens than the United States of America.
Is the land of the free now the home of the incarcerated?
Violent criminals belong behind bars.
But so often the folks we lock up aren’t dangerous.
In fact, 45 percent of Illinois inmates are locked up for nonviolent offenses.
And the Illinois Department of Corrections has 48,000 people locked up in a system designed to house 32,000. That’s a dangerous situation not only for convicts, but for staff.
Remember, just about everyone who goes to prison gets out.
And seldom does someone leave prison a better person than when they went in.
But by the same token, no one ever left prison ever wanting to go back.
The young man who was sitting next to me is a good case in point.
“I’ve got to look after my baby and my baby’s mamma now. I’m willing to do any kind of work. I’m even willing to work at Burger King,” he said.
He then glanced at my shirt and tie and said “Do you think you could get me a job?” I’m moving to Springfield because I want to start over,” he said as he took a swallow from his third beer.
Sadly, there are a lot of jobs this young man won’t be eligible for because of his felony conviction. It is difficult for felons to become barbers, nail technicians and a whole host of other licensed vocations.
It’s time to lift those restrictions. After all, the harder it is for someone to find a job, the more likely it is they’ll return to crime.
It’s also time to look at reducing sentences for non-violent offences. The Illinois Senate’s vote last week to reduce penalties for having a small amount of pot is a step in the right direction.
We need to look at intelligent sentencing alternatives for other crimes as well.
Crime may not pay, but neither does the way Illinois has been dealing with non-violent offenses.
Scott Reeder ([email protected]) is the Executive Editor of the Illinois News Network, a project of the Illinois Policy Institute. An earlier version of this article first appeared at http://www.ilnews.org/. Reprinted with permission.