Illinois Revamped prison release plan moves to state House Plan offers inmates more opportunities to earn good-conduct credit

By John O'Connor

AP Political Writer

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) -- A top Illinois lawmaker says the state faces a stark choice: Let low-level, well-behaved criminal offenders out of prison early or watch a judge order the state to "start churning people out."

House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie said Monday that Illinois could be headed for a California-style prison-crowding lawsuit as a committee approved a revamped early release program 7-1, sending it to the House floor.

Shaving time off prison sentences for good conduct has been viewed as politically risky since a 2009 early release debacle that nearly cost Gov. Pat Quinn the election. But, proponents say, it is necessary to make a dent in a prison system with 15,000 more prisoners than it was designed to house.

One supporter calls it "triage" for the troubled Department of Corrections. Sen. Kwame Raoul, who steered the measure to approval in the Senate last week 55-1, said strong legislative support would give Quinn political cover to resume a now-retooled and modernized program.

The plan offers inmates more opportunities to earn good-conduct credit while giving the Corrections director more power to prohibit an early out for violent criminals, Currie said. The legislation retains a 60-day minimum state prison sentence that was at the heart of the scandal and written into law as a result.

A year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled California's correctional congestion amounted to unconstitutional punishment and ordered its population reduced by 30,000 in two years. Currie warned of a similar fate at home: Since Quinn shut the door on early release, Illinois' prison population has grown by several thousand inmates, to 48,000 in a system designed to hold about 34,000.

"We could find the courts telling us we're going to have to start churning people out ..." said Currie, a Chicago Democrat. "Passing this measure gives us a protective layer against the likelihood that the courts are going to do it for us."

Rep. Dennis Reboletti, R-Elmhurst, who served on a task force to address crowding, said last winter that prison officials told him they needed to reduce the population by about 4,000 to operate most efficiently and safely.

A Corrections spokeswoman denied any Illinois prison official ever said that. The agency has started counting all the floor space in its prisons, not just beds, and officially says its facilities are not over capacity.

For decades, early release was used to reward good behavior and was a way to control population.

But it was an unwritten policy that no one got credit until the inmate served at least 60 days in the penitentiary. The Associated Press reported in 2009 that the Corrections Department had secretly dumped the 60-day rule and was releasing inmates -- some violent -- just weeks or even days after they arrived.

Quinn soon halted early release entirely. Prosecutors and crime victims, among others, were incensed by the unpublicized plan, and Quinn's opponents in the 2010 primary and general elections used the issue against him.

Neither Quinn nor his Corrections Department has taken a position on the legislation.

"This bill is triage," said John Maki of the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group. "It simply gives the DOC the power to reward and incentivize the kind of programs and behavior that we know helps inmates when they get out of prison."

The measure is not the final answer to overcrowding, Maki said, but opens the door to other reforms, such as alternative sentencing for low-level offenders.

The plan expands the number and types of programs -- substance abuse treatment, life-skills training -- that an inmate can participate in and receive sentence credit. For the first time, it grants credit for programs at county jails, where most criminals spend months awaiting trial.

The proposal also gives the corrections director complete discretion to refuse early release to a particularly violent inmate or one the director thinks would be a threat on the street. Right now, corrections officials believe court rulings limit that discretion.

Raoul, the Senate sponsor, hopes bipartisan legislative support changes Quinn's mind about early release.

"That hopefully gives the governor's office the security they need politically to begin to address this problem," he said.

Published: Wed, May 30, 2012


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