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Illinoisans Working To Reduce Number Of Female Inmates

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A new group in Illinois is hoping to reduce the number of women in prison. NPR's Scott Simon speaks to one of the group's members, state Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke.


There's new effort in Illinois to try to reduce the number of women who are in prison by half over the next seven years. This week, a group of a hundred women experts in criminal justice - prison officials, attorneys, judges and former prisoners - announced their plans. Justice Anne Burke sits on the Illinois Supreme Court and is a member of that group. She joins us from WBEZ in Chicago.

Justice Burke, thanks so much for being with us.

ANNE BURKE: Thank you, Scott, for inviting me.

SIMON: There are about 2,500 women in prison in Illinois but over 40,000 men. Why do you feel it's important to bring special attention to women?

BURKE: Well, it's not that we're just bringing special attention. We're just highlighting some of the things. There's a lot of reform going on, but there's unintended consequences with women in prison. They are generally the caregivers, and the children end up in foster care when a mother is incarcerated.

SIMON: Are - recognizing generalizations are difficult sometimes, are men and women often imprisoned for different reasons?

BURKE: Absolutely. For instance, a domestic violence situation - oftentimes, the woman, who is the victim, is arrested, as well. She's also charged with domestic violence, so she has a felony. And she really wasn't the abuser in this situation, but it's on her record.

SIMON: To try and be clear, are you are you saying that a lot of women now in prison have been wrongfully convicted or that prison may not be the best way of serving a sentence?

BURKE: Well, I'm not generalizing about wrongly convicted. But at bond court, they don't ask about - well, who is the victim here? Who wasn't the victim? That's for a later day for a court hearing. So many women are incarcerated immediately. And so if they do have a job, they lose their job; they lose their kids; the child goes into foster care if they have no family support. It just is a cycle.

SIMON: When you talk, Justice Burke, about trying to prevent recidivism and crime, can you give us a couple of examples of things you'd like to see done that might be a step toward that?

BURKE: So I would say that we need more mental health services for our people before they commit some sort of a crime. Generally, you know, even homeless people, you can - who might have some mental health issues - they become incarcerated because they've stolen a Snickers bar. And they do that five or six times, and they end up with felonies. That's ridiculous. It costs a $143 a day in Cook County Jail to keep an inmate. If they can't make a $500 bond, we've got them in jail for maybe two years waiting for trial at $143 a day. It's counterproductive.

SIMON: When you announced the ambition of reducing the women prison population by half - haven't many of those women been lawfully convicted by a court? How do you change their sentences or how they serve time without subverting the rule of law?

BURKE: No, it's not about that. Lawful convictions are absolutely going to be abided by. But if we can work with them before they get incarcerated by having services in the neighborhood, in the community, then we can avoid incarceration. And while they're in jail, let's try to help them be on a path to learning some skills and then, of course, the path to outside. We should have some sort of a plan for them to help them. And we just don't have that now.

SIMON: Justice Burke, you know politics. Nobody wants to spend more money.

BURKE: I know. But if we don't, it's going to cost more - like I said, $143 a day for somebody who stole a Snickers bar for, you know, a year - year and a half awaiting trial. And that's why judges are part of this task force. We're there to listen, to observe and to help people make sure that this is going to be fair to those who are being detained and incarcerated.

SIMON: Justice Anne Burke of the Illinois Supreme Court, thanks so much for being with us.

BURKE: Thank you, Scott, very much.

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