Public forum addresses incarceration alternatives

Community members discussed alternatives to incarceration at a meeting led by Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice on Friday.

The group began a campaign for alternatives after a Champaign County Board proposal was made earlier this year to spend $20 million on a new jail.

Panel members at the event included the Rev. Zernial Bogin, president of the Champaign County Black Chamber of Commerce; Diane Zell, president of the National Alliance for Mental Illness of Champaign County; Gilberto Rosas, member of the C-U Immigration Forum; Diana Lenik, steering committee member of the Champaign County American Civil Liberties Union; and James Kilgore, member of Citizens With Convictions.

All speakers explored several alternatives to jail, including education for young people, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and resources for those returning from incarceration.

Aaron Ammons, co-founder of CUCPJ, he had suffered from the criminal justice system. Ammons said his life was difficult after being released from the county jail.

“I was an ex-drug dealer, ex-drug user. … There are certain jobs that are denied to you. … It was frustrating,” he said.

Ammons said he thinks the county should spend money not on increasing jail space but on helping formerly incarcerated individuals. He said that without the support of job training or other educational programs, ex-prisoners will likely continue committing crimes.

Brian Dolinar, member of CUCPJ, said that because of discrimination, many more African-Americans are jailed for minor crimes than people of other races.

“They don’t need to sit in jail,” Dolinar said. “I mean, how often do you see people jaywalk on campus? And how often do you see people (on campus getting) arrested? Never. Never. But this happens routinely in some neighborhoods.”

One alternative to creating more jail facilities discussed at the forum was improving youth education. Bogin said children can learn to be creative and explore their intelligence through such programs, and if the county can spend millions of dollars on a new jail, it has the resources to educate children.

“We have to stop this,” he said. “We have to break this vicious cycle. We have to realize these kids are not just our young. These kids are the ones who are going to be the rulers … of our future.”

Many people are jailed because of mental health issues and substance abuse, Zell said. She said by making mental health treatment more available, many people would be prevented from committing crimes.

“If they can’t get mental health treatment because they can’t afford it, they continue to get worse until they do commit some sort of offense, and they end up in jail,” Zell said.

She also said the county should spend money on providing mental health care to current inmates because they cannot afford the treatment.

Champaign County resident Scott Kimball, whose brother is in jail on drug abuse charges, attended the forum. He said jail is not effective in treating drug addictions.

“Incarcerating drug addicts does not make our community safer,” he said. “What helps their addiction is community (and) community programs — not punishment in jail.”

Panelists also discussed the negative stigmas about people returning from prisons. Kilgore also said society should remove the bans set up for ex-convicts in seeking jobs, housing and public services.

“I don’t think there really is anything that is a legitimate alternative to incarceration unless we start talking about mindset, philosophy and ideas because what we’ve had … is a philosophy of punishment,” Kilgore said. “The notions of rehabilitation, the notions of second chances, the notions of paying your debt to society have disappeared, and instead, we’ve had a punitive regime which has led to mass incarceration.”

Zike can be reached at [email protected]