Illinois senator urges removal of prison rights advocate

By Brandon Griggs, CNN

US Sen. Dick Durbin is calling for the removal of Julie Stewart, president of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a non-profit which works in state courts and prisons.

Durbin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Rules Committee, sent a letter to Stewart last week and attached an original copy of an upcoming CNN interview in which Stewart defends the prison industry and her work.

“This is out of all proportion. It’s out of line with other abuses of power — cases of abuse by the ACLU and the Black Panthers and the KKK,” Durbin told CNN on Wednesday, referring to past instances of alleged political persecution and intimidation in the federal Bureau of Prisons.

CNN previewed Durbin’s interview with Stewart ahead of the senator’s public comments on Wednesday. It begins at 5 p.m. ET.

“I found it extremely troubling to hear somebody representing their organization lecture our country on how great the industry is. You couldn’t make it up,” Durbin said.

Stewart said she was honored to have Durbin call her at home with the email and welcome her to Illinois.

“It’s an honor to be a part of the incredibly important work that we do,” Stewart said.

Stewart said the federal government as a whole spends nearly a quarter of its budget on corrections and that federal taxpayers help to run prisons in 34 states and the District of Columbia.

“Of course, everything in government comes with an onus and a responsibility to be transparent, and there are opportunities to improve the process and the dialogue. But to do that you have to have the trust of those you’re addressing,” Stewart said.

On Durbin’s broader argument that there is a direct connection between prison spending and crime rates, Stewart said crime rates have gone down in recent years partly because more people have been incarcerated.

“We’re talking about something that for 30 years (has been) a badge of honor to the big players in this industry,” Stewart said.

Durbin said he’s troubled by the organization’s pro-prison stance, citing its 2013 study which found that about 50% of prison inmates exit the system with jobs or earning opportunities. Durbin asked Stewart how the state of Illinois would be able to fund the prison system if it reduced the emphasis on prisoner re-entry.

Stewart said that at the “lowest end of the scale, only 20% of prisoners earn employment through the prison system.”

“I have a state that has more than a 95% recidivism rate; clearly that falls on the public,” Durbin said.

Stewart said that, while “nothing is absolute” in terms of the difficulty of prisons re-offending, there are programs available in prisons aimed at rehabilitation.

“We’re not engaging in a race to the bottom or a race to cheapen our system,” Stewart said.

Durbin said it’s not enough to simply reduce recidivism when it is the root of what creates the problem.

“What happens behind bars should not be penal,” Durbin said.

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