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posted: 10/25/2012 9:35 AM

Editorial: The win-win of first-time forgiveness

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In 2009, the average number of inmates in Illinois prisons stood at 45,545. It grew to 47,504 the next year and to 48,978 in 2011, according to annual reports from the Illinois Department of Corrections. Those inmates cost more than $20,000 a year each to house, feed and watch.

The most recent figure is equivalent to the populations of Glen Ellyn and Lisle combined. Many of those inmates are repeat offenders and will continue on that path. But not all of those who commit low-level crimes should be considered a lost cause. Not all who commit a crime need be a drain on the state's resources -- your tax money.

DuPage County State's Attorney Bob Berlin last week joined Cook County and other collar counties by launching a program that offers forgiveness to first-time offenders of some nonviolent crimes, provided that they are fully involved in a process to set them on a better path. In other words, sometimes good people make bad choices, but that doesn't mean their transgression should haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Legal Affairs Writer Josh Stockinger explored DuPage's program in a story on Monday.

Here's how it works:

In order to qualify for the program, defendants must be first-time offenders who face nonviolent felony charges for crimes like retail theft or forgery. They must be referred by their defense attorney or the state's attorney's office. They pay a $50 application fee and, upon acceptance, another $750 that's nonrefundable.

They are interviewed by a program coordinator and then take responsibility for their crime before a citizens panel. If they pass that stage, it's up to Berlin's office whether to accept them.

Successful candidates must plead guilty and comply with a variety of conditions that could include community service, counseling, random drug testing, employment, education and making good on financial restitution. If all expectations are met after a year, the state's attorney dismisses the charges. If the conditions are not met, the defendant is sentenced on the original charge to which he already has pleaded guilty.

"This is no slap on the wrist," Berlin told Stockinger. "We're trying to address the underlying problems to keep defendants from re-offending."

We've long supported programs like this that focus on rehabilitation rather than imprisonment -- programs like Kane County's long-standing drug court and similar efforts in other counties that have been successful in many cases in breaking the cycle of illicit drug abuse, addiction and the crimes they spawn.

Such efforts enable prosecutors to use their tight resources on more-dangerous criminals. They save counties money on housing inmates, keep county inmates from being sentenced to state prisons for long, expensive stretches of time and give individuals who are inclined to learn their lesson a second chance to have a productive life rather than to be a drain on society.

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