The shallow scar by 48-year-old Craig Canser’s left eye serves as a gentle reminder of where he once was, and where he hopes to never return.
By the time he was released from prison for the last time in December 2007, Canser had spent about a third of his life behind bars for crimes ranging from drug dealing to armed robbery, and had become familiar with 14 different Illinois correctional facilities.
“I did wrong,” said Canser.
Canser credits St. Leonard’s Ministries, a program devoted to rehabilitating offenders, with getting him on the right track in life. With the help of $6 million in federal stimulus funds set aside by Gov. Pat Quinn, Illinois recently launched a program with the same goal in mind.
Adult Redeploy 2010, a program developed out of the Illinois Crime Reduction Act of 2009 (Public Act 96-0761), allows offenders convicted of minor crimes that could be eligible for probation to bypass prisons and began the rehabilitation process in the community — a move meant to prevent ex-offenders from recidivating, or going back to their lives of crime.
Those incarcerated for violent and/or other non-probationable offenses like rape, murder and aggravated battery, are ineligible for the program.
According to the latest data from the Pew Center on the States, nationwide spending on corrections has gone from $11 billion to more than $50 billion over the past two decades. The center estimates about one out of every 100 adults is behind bars.
Each year, about 40,000 people enter and leave Illinois prisons — many for nonviolent, low-level crimes, according to Chicago Metropolis 2020, an organization with the mission of improving the global image of Chicago by combating the issues facing the region.
The estimated yearly cost to incarcerate each prisoner is about $21,200. More than half of those prisoners cycle through the prison system multiple times — leaving the state paying for crime in more ways than one.
So far, about a handful of the 102 Illinois counties have taken the first steps to incorporating Adult Redeploy in their communities by applying for non-competitive program start-up grants ranging from $10,000 to $30,000, said Mary Ann Dyar, Metro 2020 program manager.
“It’s a lot cheaper to provide treatment in the communities than in the criminal justice system,” said Dyar. “State funds are just so tied up right now. Adult Redeploy couldn’t be more critical.”
Rep. William Burns (D-Chicago) mentioned Illinois’ $13 billion deficit as a definite reason to encourage the creation of programs like Adult Redeploy. “We’ve got to figure out a way to balance our state spending priorities,” he said.
Burns, one of the initial sponsors of the legislation that led to Adult Redeploy 2010, said using community programs is a more cost-effective way to deal with low risk offenders.
“Prison is counterproductive” for low risk offenders, said Burns. When a low risk offender is put in community programs for rehabilitation, he said, “the odds of the person recidivating decreases.”
A main goal for Adult Redeploy, said Dyar, is to cut prison expenses by 25 percent. “It not only uses taxpayer dollars wisely — you have safer communities,” she said.
Lindsay Bostwick, research analyst for the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, said communities are often also able to provide more assistance to an ex-offender than that of prison rehabilitation programs.
“If you keep them in the community, it’s better,” said Bostwick. She said she hopes Adult Redeploy will be as successful as the first version of Redeploy Illinois that was developed for juvenile offenders.
That program, she said, had been loosely based on Reclaim Ohio, another rehabilitation program for juvenile offenders with strong emphasis on community support.
Ryan Gies, Ohio Department of Youth Services subsidies bureau chief, has been involved with Reclaim Ohio since its 1994 pilot launch in nine Ohio counties.
The program went statewide in 1995 and since then, said Gies, a lot of things have changed — one being the number of juveniles being put in state institutions.
Gies said that when Reclaim Ohio first launched, there were more than 2,000 youths in state custody. Now, he said, that number has been cut in half. The program has also had an effect on the state as a whole, he said.
“We’ve seen a huge array of programs develop across the state,” said Gies. “There are [now] a lot of options for kids,” he said.
A 2005 evaluation of Reclaim Ohio found that juveniles in the program recidivated at less than half the rate of juveniles placed in state institutions.
It’s evidence-based programs like Reclaim Ohio, said Bostwick, that Adult Redeploy will be funding. Much of the evidence, she said, shows incarcerating low risk offenders creates worse offenders.
He said there is “no doubt about” a person learning worse crimes in prison. “You learn about better crimes and how to do them,” he said.
Leaning back in a chair in a quiet conference room in one of St. Leonard’s Ministries’ buildings, Canser reflected on his first experiences with the criminal justice system.
Canser grew up in Rockwell Gardens, the now-demolished housing project, in Chicago. He said he witnessed a lot of crime while living there.
“I could see the criminals chasing the cops — all of that had an influence on me,” he said.
Canser was put behind bars for the first time at the age of 13 for refusing to give police officers the names of men he saw murdering a drug dealer. Canser said the reason he didn’t tell the officers anything was because the men who’d murdered the dealer had threatened to harm him and his family if he told.
After that first jail experience, said Canser, things went downhill fast.
Canser got involved with the drug trade and although he was never put in prison for it, his dealing impacted him in another way: two years after he started selling drugs, he started using drugs.
Then Canser went from using drugs to taking money from the drug dealers and from taking money from dealers to robbing stores. A Walgreens robbery had Canser serving 4 ½ years at Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison in Joliet, Ill.
“It was pretty hard,” said Canser. And even harder, he said, was the adjustment to post-prison life.
Canser said he was fortunate to have his family members and friends for support when he was last released from prison because many offenders, he said, don’t have that support.
“Once you get out of jail, you have nothing, and if you’re going back to a poor neighborhood, they already have nothing,” said Canser. For an ex-offender used to having “three meals a day and getting a place to sleep,” he said, that can be a recipe for disaster.
In 2005, 82 percent of Illinois’ formerly incarcerated returned to regions of the state that suffer some of the highest poverty and crime rates, according to the 2009 IDOC Governor’s Reentry Commission Report.
The report outlines five important factors for successful transition from prison to the community: public safety, employment and education, health and behavioral health, housing and faith, family and community — key areas emphasized at St. Leonard’s Ministries.
“We have a tendency to want to deal with the problem after it’s already occurred,” said Gaskins. But the thing to do, he said, is to “catch them while they are still low risk.”
Canser said he wished programs like Redeploy Illinois had been around when he was first incarcerated. “Your past always seems to haunt you,” he said. But Canser’s outlook on life seemed little affected despite the years he spent behind bars.
With help from St. Leonard’s, Canser was able to get a job at the Chicago Medical Examiner’s Office and get his barber’s license. He’s also involved with Smart Decisions, a program geared toward encouraging at-risk youths to stay on the right track.
“Life comes full circle,” said Canser. “I’m just blessed to still be here.”