Illinois Criminal Justice Watchdog Wins MacArthur Award

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The John Howard Association of Illinois is one of nine nonprofit recipients of the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. The $500,000 award acknowledges not only the organizations’ “past leadership and successes but also an investment in the future.”

The 113-year-old organization (JHA) has since its inception worked as an independent watchdog over Illinois’ criminal justice and prison systems. Its work in prisons and juvenile facilities has proved a resource for policymakers. By speaking directly to those inside the systems it uncovers not only conditions that need to be addressed but also give voice to prisoners’ interests.

“We work to maintain a balance between recognizing prison realities and criticism of the prisons,” said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, interim director of JHA.

She stressed that running a detention facility is not an easy job, with harsh environments and chronic understaffing, but that that does not excuse bad treatment of those behind bars. She also pointed to the need for ongoing programs and educational opportunities for those incarcerated, as well as support for them once released.

“Humanity demands that we care about even those we lock up,” Vollen-Katz said. “These people are coming back to our communities; what do we want to happen?”

Elspeth Revere, the MacArthur vice president who heads the award program, said, “The John Howard Association’s independent voice plays an indispensable role in helping to ensure that Illinois’ justice systems are fair effective and humane.”

MacArthur does not solicit candidates nor accept applications for the award. Organizations “must demonstrate exceptional creativity and effectiveness” as well as show financial strength and good leadership.

Vollen-Katz called the grant “transformative,” saying it would allow JHA to focus on its mission while taking off some of the pressure of sustainability. JHA will establish an innovation fund and focus on “increasing communications, volunteer coordination and capacity, and public outreach and education.”

Regarding the juvenile justice system, she said JHA is working to see a change in automatic transfer laws, an increased reliance on smaller facilities closer to the homes of kids and community-based alternatives to detention. She pointed out that in smaller settings kids have a greater chance of receiving mental health and other support.

Asked how the large award will impact JHA’s vision, Vollen-Katz said it “will allow us to continue and expand the important work of prison reform and is a validation of the importance of having a safe, humane and effective criminal justice and prison system.”

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