State readies for revamped early prisoner release program

2013-01-09T20:00:00Z State readies for revamped early prisoner release programKurt Erickson Lee Springfield Bureau nwitimes.com
January 09, 2013 8:00 pm  • 

SPRINGFIELD | The Quinn administration began taking the first steps Wednesday to restart an early inmate release program that could reduce the population of the state’s overcrowded prison system.

A day after a special panel of lawmakers signed off on rules for the program, Illinois Department of Corrections spokeswoman Stacey Solano said Wednesday officials are beginning to review inmate records to determine which prisoners might be eligible for reduced sentences.

“This will be an ongoing, careful and thoughtful process,” Solano said in a prepared statement.

There is no set timetable for when the first prisoner might be released under the program, but the review of inmate information is a signal that the program could launch in coming weeks.

The already crowded Illinois prison system became even more tightly packed after Gov. Pat Quinn suspended a similar early release program in 2010, after the Associated Press reported that inmates were being released after serving just a few weeks behind bars.

The cancellation has meant about 49,000 inmates are packed into a prison system designed to hold about 32,000.

In June, Quinn signed off on a new early release program approved by the General Assembly. The law calls for offering good time credits to nonviolent offenders who have participated in job training and drug rehabilitation programs.

Under the new law, prisoners must spend at least 60 days in prison before being considered for release.

“This program will provide an award of up to 180 days of sentence credit to statutorily eligible inmates who exhibit positive behavior and a potential for rehabilitation,” Solano noted.

The launch of the program comes as the state is the subject of a federal lawsuit filed by inmates at the Vienna Correctional Center, who say overcrowding has resulted in unsafe living conditions, including vermin-infested living areas, mold and broken windows. Some of the problems have been fixed since the suit was filed.

The union representing correctional officers and other prison employees supports the new program because it could reduce tensions within the prison system.

“Offering good time can be a tool to keep prisons safe when it rewards good behavior and compliance with rules,” said Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union.

But, Lindall said, “In practice, the Quinn administration’s track record on corrections is disturbing. We are approaching the implementation of a Quinn good time program with extreme caution.”

John Maki, executive director of the Chicago-based John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group, said the program will not resolve the state’s overcrowding problem, but it could give inmates an incentive to behave better while they are incarcerated.

“This is a small fix,” said Maki.

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