Alternatives to incarceration deserve serious consideration
Editor's note: This piece is based on a letter sent to Champaign County Board members Chris Alix and James Quisenberry on Aug. 14, 2013, signed by Lierman Neighborhood Action Committee president Robin Arbiter and 36 more people living in or visiting the Lierman Neighborhood. LNAC is a not-for-profit organization promoting health, safety, dignity and self-determination for residents of the neighborhood.
By ROBIN ARBITER
On Feb. 20 of this year, several members of the Lierman Neighborhood Action Committee in Urbana met with county board members Chris Alix and James Quisenberry, and Alan Kalmanoff, the Champaign County Board's consultant on jail-related issues. LNAC's aim was to add the concerns of residents living in closest proximity to the jail to the mix of voices bringing information and ideas to the county.
Among our concerns: 1) residents of the Lierman neighborhood are the jail's closest neighbors, yet when we see people looking for resources here upon release, there are none, beyond a corner store where someone might borrow a cellphone; 2) on any given day, members of our neighborhood are inmates of the county jail; 3) in December of 2012, more than 60 of our neighborhood's children had a parent in custody at the jail; 4) neighborhood tweens and teens often "graduate" from station adjustment or probation to incarceration, instead of being successfully "diverted"; 5) as violent crime falls in the neighborhood, a significant number of calls for service (to police) and police reports are related to domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health issues and custodial and drug-related disputes. (Yet, in May, the fledgling Mental Health Court was closed).
We noted that the impact of incarceration on our neighborhood is obvious and disruptive. The over-representation of black youth and men in the jail is mirrored in the under-representation of black men and youth living in gainfully employed, securely housed positions in the neighborhood. The connection: incarceration negatively impacts employment and housing opportunities, particularly in the Lierman neighborhood, where HUD housing opportunities and Section 8/HCV are utilized under guidelines more discriminatory toward people with criminal convictions than Urbana's Human Rights Ordinance.
As the county board winds up its needs assessment process, members should consider that unnecessary incarceration fuels many of the cyclical and generational problems which beset Lierman neighborhood (and neighborhoods like ours). There are many court- and community-based alternatives that are worth attention, including prevention, treatment, restorative justice, re-integration, family mentoring, transitional housing and job development. Alternatives to incarceration deserve serious, robust funding: they can keep families and neighborhoods whole and they can be much less expensive than secured, institutional housing. Apportioning funds and other resources generously to incarceration alternatives is the right direction to take: it's what informed residents with the most at stake in the issue want, and it's financially sensible.
Robin Arbiter is president of the Lierman Neighborhood Action Committee.