by Harold Pollack

If you are serious about Illinois public policy, progressillinois is an essential source. Hat's-off to Josh Kalven for today's story on overcrowding at Cook County Jail. While we are at it, hat's-off to Alderwoman Toni Preckwinkle for raising this issue on television this morning. It's heartening that local elected politicians are willing to tackle this subject, and that they are willing to step up on behalf of a despised group of citizens who need help.

Prisons and jails should be great assets to American public health. After all, we have a uniquely high-risk population literally under lock-and-key, in a setting where we might address a wide variety of public health concerns ranging from infectious disease transmission to psychiatric disorders and substance abuse. Instead, a toxic combination of overcrowding, serious management challenges, and lack of resources conspires to make bad public health problems even worse.

President Obama would be wise to place correctional health at the top of the list as he reinvigorates our nation's public health efforts. Come to think of it: A few hundred million dollars in stimulus money, allocated through HRSA or CDC, might do wonders.

I'm not convinced that we need to incarcerate--for as long and as harshly as we now do--many of the offenders Preckwinkle mentions. Mark Kleiman and others propose swift, certain, but more modest punishment for many offenders. Such policies are likely to prove more effective and more humane.

That's a subject for another day. For now, I will just say: Since we have chosen to be our brothers' keepers, we should at least do the job as it needs to be done.

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