Illinois parolees: Often undereducated, unemployed — and soon back behind bars

Justin McDowell was 17 when he and a confederate shotgunned their way into a downstate Allendale, Ill., home, held a couple and their infant daughter at gunpoint and stole $300 and the keys to the family’s black Chevy Impala. Like so many youth felonies, it was a stupid, tragic act. When McDowell was arrested a year later in 2002, he was working episodically for little money, laying foundations beneath double-wide trailer homes. He had no plans to return to school. The judge gave him 36 years.

By the time McDowell is eligible for parole in 2020, having served half his sentence, he will have cost Illinois taxpayers more than $396,000 — the cumulative price of his incarceration. Will it prove an efficient investment for a state experiencing a severe budget crisis? It ought to, given McDowell’s evolving eagerness over the past seven years to pursue an education and turn his life around. But for the Centralia Correctional Center inmate, now 33, the question remains open — as it does for most of the more than 40,000 men and women currently incarcerated in Illinois prisons.

Last March, McDowell lost an important building block toward reconfiguring his life when Kaskaskia College summarily, indefinitely and reluctantly suspended the in-prison degree program it had administered at Centralia since 1983, and in which McDowell was enrolled. At the time, McDowell was more than halfway toward earning an associate’s degree in general education. He previously had completed a six-month vocational tech program in construction management, earning straight A’s. “He’d been on a waiting list for almost two years, trying to get into that course,” Steve Mandrell, his Kaskaskia professor, recalled. Mandrell found him so impressive, he later hired him as a teacher’s aide.

Kaskaskia ended its program because the Illinois Department of Corrections, as a result of the state’s ongoing budget crisis, had stopped payment on its three-year, roughly $1.2 million contract with the school. According to George Evans, Kaskaskia’s dean of career and technical education, McDowell was one of approximately 1,400 prisoners the school has educated over the years.

The rehabilitative cost of ending post-secondary education opportunities for prisoners such as McDowell is substantial. “I went and talked to him the day before I left (my teaching position at Centralia),” Mandrell recalled. “He was telling me how wrong it was to not be able to complete his degree. He said, ‘There may be something I can do as far as a job, and this is going to hinder that.'”

But there is an accompanying, steep price the rest of us pay.

As of July 2015, McDowell was one of about 41,000 men and women interred in Illinois correctional centers, at a combined, annual taxpayer cost of close to $1 billion.

According to a 2015 Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council study, about 97 percent ultimately will be released, through parole or completion of sentence — including those convicted of violent crimes. It is not unusual for a murderer to get 40 years and win parole after serving 20.

The same study found that 19 percent of those released recidivate within a year, 48 percent in three years. IDOC paroled about 30,000 prisoners in 2013, according to an NBC report. That means roughly 14,400 could possibly return to prison. The cost of housing, feeding and caring for a single prisoner varies among the state’s 25 correctional centers, but averaged around $23,000 a year in the 2013-2014 fiscal year. Based on all those figures, the taxpayer cost of housing people who recidivate, alone, is more than $331 million annually.

Factor in court costs, law enforcement costs and the social and economic losses suffered by new victims of parolees’ crimes, and the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council study estimated in 2015 that the total cost of recidivism in Illinois over the next five years would be $16.7 billion.

The best chance to break the recidivism cycle, a 2013 Rand Corp. study commissioned by the Justice Department found, is by offering prisoners access to a college-level education. According to the study, those who took classes while incarcerated were 43 percent less likely to recidivate.

Yet Illinois’ in-prison college programs are disappearing at an alarming rate. Around the time Kaskaskia ended its program, and for the identical reason, Richland Community College did the same. Danville Area Community College eliminated its vocational offerings.

Evans, the Kaskaskia dean, can’t find the logic in it. “Over a three-year study, the highest recidivism rate we had was 10 percent in our culinary program,” he said. “The lowest was 6 percent in the electronics program. Compare that to the 51.2 percent of those receiving no training whatsoever. Look at the (potential) savings. That has been presented numerous times to the DOC. It has fallen on deaf ears.”

As the community college programs neared their end, the students — prisoners — began a letter-writing campaign, to the IDOC, to their state legislators, to the governor. “The governor’s office was flooded with letters from inmates,” Evans said. “The inmates filed grievances. We had gang members who came in and said, ‘I got kids. I was a punk (when I was arrested), and my goal here is to make sure I never come back here.’ It did no good. They (state and prison officials) just do not take education seriously. They may say that they do, but don’t when it comes down to it.”

A year has passed since Mandrell last taught at Centralia. He still worries about the effect the program’s dissolution has had on McDowell. “My class was the first college course he took,” Mandrell said. “About halfway through, it’s like he softened up. Before, he was very negative — you know, ‘I’m never going to be able to get a very good job, because I’ve got this on my rap sheet.’ Then he started talking positive. ‘You know, if I can do this, then I know I can make a living. I know I can go back into society and be productive.'”

Ron Berler is the author of “Raising the Curve: Teachers, Students – A True Portrayal of Classroom Life.”

Illinois parolees: Often undereducated, unemployed — and soon back behind bars

Illinois Universities Feel the Brunt of State’s Fiscal Woes

With the budget stalemate in Illinois in its 21st month, public universities in the state are going beyond belt-tightening to deal with a funding drought that has no end in sight.

Campuses already have pressed pause on new construction and stopped hiring for vacant positions. Now, universities including Northeastern Illinois, Governors State and Southern Illinois are looking to fixes like hiking tuition, cutting academic programs or…

Illinois Universities Feel the Brunt of State’s Fiscal Woes

University of Illinois proposes new financial aid commitment

Springfield- The University of Illinois System is proposing a partnership with the state to help keep students in Illinois. 

The university system announced the Invest in Illinois, or Triple I program, an amendment to the proposed Investment, Performance, and Accountability Commitment (IPAC) bill. This measure would provide predictable funding for university operations over the next five years. In turn, the university would agree to meet tangible performance goals that serve the needs of the state. 

The newest amendment would earmark $170 million in annual financial aid for for in-state students. If approved, over the course of the five-year agreement, $850 million would be provided to students in financial aid. This plan is being formulated to stop the out-migration of students leaving the state to go to college. “We’re trying through these mechanisms to drive student debt down for our graduates, enable more students who would otherwise be leaving the state to participate. We need to be competitive on cost, we are already really competitive on quality.” said Tim Killeen, University of Illinois President.

According to President Killeen, in surveys of students admitted to the U of I system who chose another college, financial barriers were cited for eight out of the ten top reasons.

Under this new performance based funding model the state would provide a FY 2018 appropriation of $647 million, with funding increasing with the rate of inflation. In return, the university would commit to holding tuition and mandated fee increases for in-state students to no more than the rate of inflation, admissions thresholds to build enrollment of Illinois undergraduates and high retention and graduation rates.

IPAC is currently awaiting hearing in a Senate committee.

University of Illinois proposes new financial aid commitment

Dear Bruce: I’m breaking up with you and here’s why

Dear Bruce Rauner,

I’m breaking up with you.  Because ours has been a committed relationship, you deserve to know why I’m breaking up with you. I have three reasons.

  1. Our relationship has never been based on mutual respect.

From the beginning, ours was an arranged relationship—neither of us chose the other.  We were thrown together in 2015.  And although we come from similar backgrounds, I knew almost immediately that we were not well-suited. Not a week into your term, you were criticizing me and my coworkers publicly.  For example, you told a group of business students at the University of Chicago that Illinois state workers were overpaid. And then you added, “there’s a bunch of baloney going on.” When you described me and all other state employees this way to a group of students and to the press—only days into your term as governor—I became alarmed. Reducing me to a grifter—or to baloney—did not make me hopeful.  Who wants to be in a relationship with someone who tells other people that you are not honest or worthy?  Who wants to be in a relationship with someone who compares you to processed food?

  1. We have never really communicated.

Most of the time I did not understand what you were talking about.   You repeated the same words and phrases: “Frivolous lawsuits,” “opportunity zones,” “layers of bureaucracy,” “structural reforms,” “grow the economy,” “attack on our hardworking taxpayers,” “collectivist (collectivist?) economy,” “business friendly,” “baloney,” “common sense reforms,” etc. Either you didn’t know what you were talking about, or you didn’t want me to understand you.  Either way, you sounded disingenuous.  Not good for a relationship.

To try understanding you, I studied, I read, and I asked questions. When I learned that you have an entire policy institute—and ALEC—devoted to you and your ideas, I studied them as well. I watched every interview, read every article. I had more questions than answers.   Some of them:

  • Do your ideas align with conventional political/economic philosophies I might recognize?  Libertarian? Free market?  Supply side?  Trickle down?  Chaos theory? String theory?
  • Who influenced your world view? Ayn Rand? Arthur Laffer?  The Bible? Your mom? Your dad?  Ronald Reagan? Grover Norquist?  A professor at Harvard? John Birch?  John Wayne?  Your roommate at Dartmouth?
  • When you give interviews or talk publicly, you describe Illinois citizens almost exclusively as “taxpayers.” My six-year-old neighbor is a taxpayer when he buys a pack of gum at the grocery store in town. Is he the taxpayer you have in mind?
  • What do you mean when you say “business-friendly?” Is my work at a public university “business-friendly?” Who are “job creators?” Am I a “job creator?”
  • (This final cluster of questions reflects various rumors/opinions I read/heard. This should be easy—just answer “yes” or “no.”) Should we pay income and property taxes?  Should the following be privatized: K-12 schools? Higher Education?  Prisons? Libraries? Parks and museums? Social services? Should regional universities be converted into trade schools? Do you know how to weld? Is government the problem and not the solution?  Should it be drowned in the bathtub? Have you ever been a teacher? In a trade union?  Too many questions?  Oh never mind.
  1. Our values are too different.

Although I rarely know what you’re saying, I know what you’re thinking: “What about Michael Madigan?  He’s the reason you’re leaving me!”  No.  Not true. Blaming Madigan is too easy, and brings out the petulant and petty in you. You’re the reason I’m leaving you.

When I became a state employee in 1987, James Thompson was the governor of Illinois.  I have had relationships with every governor since. Some took the job more seriously than others; some were more honest than others; some had better hair than others. As different as they were, they all shared one characteristic that affected me:  they respected me.  They did not portray state workers as villains. They did not blame us when things went wrong. Some of them disliked our unions, but they respected our rights.  They had different styles, ideas, talents, goals, and names. Not one of them was named Michael Madigan.

You see where I’m going with this?  Madigan and the legislators did not cause our breakup. I don’t always like what they do, but they work hard, and they try to work together. Besides, the legislature changes every two years. You know this because you invested thousands of your own dollars in last year’s election.  That was the last straw for me.  One February morning in 2016, I read two headlines:  one, that you were donating big money to the campaigns of several candidates, and two, that to stay open through the end of the semester, EIU would be laying off 300 employees the following month.

We all get to donate money however we choose, and how we choose to spend money says a great deal about who we are. Your donations to candidates in 2016 suggested this about you:  while state universities and social services were collapsing, you chose to devote resources to influence the state legislature to do things your way. This strategy might have looked like a smooth move for a smart venture capitalist.  For a governor, it suggested ruthlessness, cynicism, and cowardice. My heart broke.  I had always dreamed of staying in this job I love until someone carried me out in a box.  As proud as I have been to serve as a state employee for 29 years, I had to quit you.

 But let’s still be friends.

We can end our relationship with grace. Please visit me in Coleman Hall at EIU sometime this Spring.  I will be happy to provide lunch, no baloney.  We can tour our great campus, or meet some of our remarkable students, or just sit and talk.  We can chat about who makes too much money, and who pays too few taxes. You can talk about why collective bargaining sucks, and I can tell you about our wonderful Union at EIU.  We can reminisce about growing up in the Chicago suburbs, or about our fathers, both of whom worked in the city. Let me know.  I will be delighted to see you at my door.

With my best wishes for your good health and happiness,

Ann Boswell

[Parley Ann Boswell has been an English professor at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston since 1987.  She is retiring in May, 2017.]

Dear Bruce: I’m breaking up with you and here’s why

State Rep. Dan Brady Talks Budget, Higher Education

State Rep. Dan Brady Talks Budget, Higher EducationCopyright 2017 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

PEORIA – State Rep. Dan Brady (R-Bloomington) joins Central Illinois On the Record to discuss the state budget and what’s been happening in the House while Senators have been negotiating the so-called grand bargain.

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Rep. Brady also discussed funding for higher education.

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State Rep. Dan Brady Talks Budget, Higher Education

Local colleges in a bind again over unfunded MAP grants David Blanchette, Correspondent

Delayed state funding for higher education continues to plague local colleges and universities, forcing many again this spring to replace promised Illinois Monetary Award Program grant funds with institutional money.

In Jacksonville, the Illinois College Board of Trustees agreed last month that this assistance from the school will apply to both the current and upcoming academic years, which will make three years in a row that the school has had to come up with support for students waiting on financial aid from MAP grants.

“This takes the uncertainty of students’ education out of the picture, and anything we can do to support our students, we are going to continue to do,” said Stephanie Chipman, IC vice president of enrollment management and college marketing. “Without these funds, many students would be unable to pursue their dreams of a bachelor’s degree.”

Approximately 450 Illinois College students rely on $1.75 million in MAP grants each year to help offset their tuition costs. IC’s commitment to replace the missing MAP funds comes from a variety of sources including the reallocation of budget dollars and the use of private donations, Chipman said.

“The lack of a budget really makes students and the future economic stability of the state pawns in the larger budget conversation,” Chipman said. 

Reserves, borrowing

At Blackburn College in Carlinville, approximately 350 students, or 62 percent of those enrolled, receive $1.3 million in MAP grants, and like their neighbors in Jacksonville, Blackburn has committed to covering those costs for the current and upcoming academic years.

“We have been fortunate to have donors who have provided us with unrestricted gifts in recent years, so we have enough in reserve … to help us with this on a short-term basis,” said Steve Morris, Blackburn’s vice president for administration and finance. “We certainly won’t have enough for a longer-term operation. To put this in perspective, it’s 10 percent of our overall operating budget.

“A big part of our mission is about making liberal arts education possible regardless of financial need. We serve a lot of first-generation college students from low-income families. MAP funding here covers almost 30 percent of the overall tuition cost per student. If we lose it going forward, it will definitely have an impact on our students and on the institution.”

Lincoln College also has committed to help the one-half of its 1,000 students who receive $2 million annually in MAP grants. The school will use a combination of its cash reserves and short-term borrowing.

Susan Boehler, vice president for enrollment management and student services at Lincoln College, said the “lack of state funding affects all Illinois colleges and universities’ ability to recruit and retain students. Like other institutions, we lose students to out-of-state schools because there isn’t a financial hook to keep them here.”

The University of Illinois Springfield will continue to cover the unfunded MAP grants as it and the other U of I campuses have done in the past. That will total $2.4 million for 742 students this academic year.

“It’s a tough time for students to worry and stress, so when it’s time to register for classes, we told students to go ahead and register because we will cover that MAP grant,” said UIS spokesman Derek Schnapp. “We’ve had to dip into reserves, we’ve done a lot of cost-cutting everywhere we can, and that’s how we are continuing to move on.

“It would help the anxiety of many students and families if a state budget could come forward and higher education is fully funded. It would take a lot of pressure off of a lot of families in Illinois.”

No degree, and debt 

The Illinois Student Assistance Commission administers the MAP program, and the last year the state had a budget, fiscal 2015, a $364 million state appropriation was used to distribute MAP grants to 128,000 Illinois students, according to ISAC’s director of communications, Lynne Baker. In fiscal 2016, ISAC received $320 million that was used to pay claims for MAP grants for the fall 2015 and spring 2016 academic semesters. These stopgap measures passed by the Illinois General Assembly arrived so late in the academic year that only 107,000 students could be served by MAP grants.

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget includes an additional $36 million that if passed would serve up to 13,000 more students, Baker said.

Last fall, ISAC sent a voluntary survey to the 132 MAP-approved schools to ask how, in light of the budget delay, they were handling MAP. Of the 96 schools that responded, 60 percent reported that they credited, or listed as pending, the full MAP award to student accounts for the first term of the 2016-17 academic year, while 53 percent of the respondents said they would credit the full award for the second term of 2016-17.

All of the schools covering the MAP costs indicated they were doing so with the expectation that they will receive payment for MAP from the state, Baker said.

“If you are a student in a school that is not able to fund the money as the school awaits payment for MAP, then you are actually being asked to come up with the money, which is really turning financial aid on its head,” Baker said. “The purpose of financial aid is to help these students go to school because they don’t have the funds to pay for it.”

ISAC also recently surveyed MAP-eligible students to ask how the budget delay had affected their their educational goals. There were nearly 12,000 responses to the student survey, including more than 4,500 written comments, Baker said.

“Students (whose schools are not covering the MAP grants) have told us that they are literally having to choose between paying the rent and food or paying their tuition,” Baker said. “Students have had to drop out for a year, and one thing we do know is that the longer it takes a student to graduate, the less likely that the student will graduate.

“The worst possible outcome is that you now have students who have had to drop out who don’t have a degree and have student loan debt.”

‘Injustice’ to students 

Only 18 percent of Lincoln Land Community College students are MAP grant eligible, according to Lynn Whalen, executive director of public relations and marketing. She said the institution offers Foundation Scholarships, work/study opportunities and no-interest installment payment plans to help students with expenses, but the college isn’t covering the cost of the missing MAP grants for students.

“Last year, Lincoln Land students eligible for MAP were awarded their funds when MAP grant funding was released by the state of Illinois,” Whalen said. “This year, those funds have not yet been released.”

MacMurray College in Jacksonville also is not in a position to cover the costs from the promised state MAP grants, but is leaving student accounts as “pending” until the MAP funds arrive from the state.

“Nearly half of the students at MacMurray College qualify for the MAP grant and rely heavily on this and other financial aid programs to assist them in achieving their educational goals,” said MacMurrray director of one-stop student services, Laci Engelbrecht. “To still be waiting, in March, for the funding promised to them by our state is an injustice.”

Engelbrecht said the Illinois Student Assistance Commission advised colleges to estimate MAP grants on financial aid awards for the 2016-17 school year, with the hope that the state’s leaders would pass a budget.

“Colleges are again advised to estimate the MAP grant on 2017-18 awards, which will only further worsen the situation until the state passes and approves a budget fully funding MAP grants,” Engelbrecht said. “To withhold funding for higher education decreases Illinois’ ability to attract and retain students and to compete with colleges in neighboring states.”

— Contact David Blanchette through the metro desk: 788-1517.

Local colleges in a bind again over unfunded MAP grants

Senate panel backs EIU tuition-discount program

SPRINGFIELD — An Eastern Illinois University program aimed at attracting more students from lower-middle- and middle-income families was approved for an extension Wednesday by an Illinois Senate committee.

The Panther Promise program, which provides tuition discounts of up to $2,500 to more than 400 students at the Charleston-based university, would get an extension to the 2022-2023 academic year under legislation sponsored by Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon.

A $2,500 discount covers about one-fifth of a student’s approximately $11,200 for tuition and fees, he said.

Panther Promise is available to students from households with an annual income ranging from $33,000 to $71,000, or 151 percent to 300 percent of the federal poverty level.

“It’s targeted at those families that make too much to qualify for MAP grants and other aid but who have a real need for assistance because of other circumstances,” said Righter, who called the program “a fabulous success” because it has brought in additional tuition revenue.

The program is in its fourth year and has helped EIU become more cost-competitive and stem further enrollment losses at the university, said Katie Anselment, the university’s director of constituent relations.

“It is going very well,” she told members of the Senate Higher Education Committee, which approved the legislation (SB 930) unanimously.

Senators asked how else they could help EIU, which has lost enrollment in recent years, like many other Illinois public universities.

“The budget would be the best thing to do,” said Anselment. “We need a budget so that we can start planning our future year to year.”

The committee also approved SB 83, which requires any private university in Illinois with a student who receives a state-provided MAP grant to file a report annually with the state Department of Central Management Services. The two-page report would require a name of the university’s contact for its supplier diversity program and its goals for supplier diversity.

Also Wednesday the Senate Government Reform Committee approved a bill (SB 685) that would allow counties to award pay increases to state’s attorneys and public defenders beyond the sums allowed by the Compensation Review Act.

The county government would have to bear the full cost of the pay raise.

Sponsor Sen. Michael Connelly, R-Naperville, said that state’s attorneys and public defenders haven’t received a pay raise since 2008.

State’s attorney pay rates vary by county size, but in Champaign County the prosecutor is paid about $167,000 annually.

Senate panel backs EIU tuition-discount program