The State’s Attorney in Winnebago County, seated in Rockland, one of the most populous cities in Illinois, is reportedly considering offering jail alternatives to first-time offenders convicted of non-violent crimes.

Winnebago County, like many throughout the country, is experiencing jail cost and overcrowding problems. Their jail population exceeded 900 for the first time in 2010, and continues to grow. This is dragging up operating costs, as well, during a time of dwindling resources.

Significantly, of the 15,800 persons booked for wrongdoing in the first 11 months of 2010, fully two thirds of them – more than 10,000 – were charged with misdemeanors such as traffic violations or non-violent, low-level offenses such as drug possession, prostitution, reckless driving or petty theft.

Winnebago State’s Attorney Joe Bruscato, seeking solutions, recently reviewed the Second Chance program in nearby Kane County, which was initiated in 1995. Under this program, first-time, non-violent offenders are eligible to apply and, if accepted, must pay to participate in the program and must complete requirements imposed by the State’s Attorney’s office. The requirements may include community service, obtaining a high school diploma or a G.E.D., counseling, an apology or paying restitution to their victims.

Failure to comply with the program rules or to satisfy the requirements results in the applicant’s return to court to face the original charges.

Statistics to date indicate that since the program’s inception almost 15 years ago, 2,758 defendants successfully completed the program while 824 failed, giving the program a 77 percent success rate, which compares very favorably with the state’s 50+ percent recidivism rate.

Bruscato says that if his office adopts the program, he realizes that some defendants will fail the program, and some of those may commit another crime, so he risks being labeled soft on crime. He says, however, that that’s a risk he might be forced to take. Besides, he said, “I take to heart that it’s the prosecutor’s role to seek justice, not merely to convict.”

Information for this article came from the Rockford Register Star, Dec. 26, 2010.