SPRINGFIELD | More than six months have passed since Gov. Pat Quinn approved legislation designed to ease overcrowding within the state’s bursting-at-the-seams prison system.
But, the new law, approved by lawmakers last spring and signed by Quinn last summer, has not yet resulted in a single inmate being sent home early.
Rather, bureaucrats at the Illinois Department of Corrections and an obscure panel of lawmakers are still working out the rules that could someday put the release of prisoners in motion.
And, although Quinn is in the process of squeezing more prisoners into less space by closing prisons in Tamms and Dwight, officials say they don’t know when the program might begin.
“There is no firm timetable set for the implementation at this time,” said Department of Corrections spokeswoman Stacey Solano.
On June 22, Quinn approved the legislation that would reinstate a prisoner sentencing credit program he canceled during his bid for governor three years ago.
Under past practice, inmates could receive credits toward an early release based on things like good behavior, their record of committing violence and any classes they took behind bars.
But, in 2009, an Associated Press report revealed that some inmates were being released just weeks or even days after their arrival. Quinn canceled the program.
Since then, the number of inmates residing within the state’s sprawling prison system has mushroomed, with about 49,000 prisoners packed into space built to house about 32,000.
Alan Mills, a Chicago attorney who represents three inmates who have served time at the Vienna Correctional Center and are suing the state because of its overcrowded conditions, said the state will see immediate benefits once the program is running.
In the lawsuit, the inmates say their bunkhouse has been infested by vermin and mold. Broken windows were covered with plywood. Some of the problems have since been fixed.
“If the department would begin implementing the law passed by the legislature … then it could close down Building 19 at Vienna, where prisoners are housed in an old warehouse, stop housing people in basements flooded with sewage at Vandalia, and begin offering programming like basic education, drug treatment, and medical and mental health treatment, that would reduce the current 50 percent recidivism rate,” Mills said in an email.
The delays associated with getting the program up and running are not uncommon in state government.
Once signed into law, the measure went to officials within the Department of Corrections to be drafted into a set of workable rules. In October, the proposed rules were submitted to the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, which includes members of the House and Senate.
The panel could vote to approve the rules as early as Jan. 8. But, even if they get a green light at that time, Corrections’ officials still would have until October 2013 to implement the guidelines.
In the meantime, Quinn is moving forward with the controversial closure of prisons. The “supermax” facility in Tamms is nearly empty of inmates and will close on Jan. 4.
The all-female Dwight Correctional Center also is set to close, but a firm date has not been released.
Together, the two facilities comprise the loss of nearly 1,400 beds in the crowded system.
Despite the slow pace, Solano said agency officials support the new early release program and are hopeful it will serve as an incentive for inmates to be on their best behavior while serving their time.
“This sentence credit law increases accountability in the state's prison system by setting new guidelines in place that further strengthen the Department's ability to promote positive offender behavior through the award of sentence credit and allows the Department to revoke credit if the offender is not compliant with rules,” Solano said in an email.
In addition to behavior, Corrections officials will consider and evaluate an inmate's prior offenses as well as the offender's potential for rehabilitation.
The new law also expands the number of programs an inmate can participate in and receive sentence credit and grants inmates credit for programs they might have taken while awaiting trial at a county lockup.