SPRINGFIELD -- Illinois prisons are preparing to introduce a more restrictive early-release program to replace one that was halted three years ago amid public outcry over inmates serving just fractions of their sentences.
Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn shut down the former program after The Associated Press reported that 1,745 inmates -- some convicted of violent crimes -- had been released within weeks or even days of their arrival at the penitentiary.
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One of those men was convicted for brutally attacking a woman in 2008. After getting six months shaved off his sentence under the program and spending a year in jail, he spent just 14 days in prison -- and was arrested the next day on suspicion of assault.
The end of the program caused the prison population to swell by more than 4,000 inmates, and there are now more than 49,000 people in prisons designed to hold 33,000. The new program is aimed at easing the problem, the way early-out programs were previously used for decades to manage the population.
But unlike in the old program, inmates must serve at least 60 days of their sentence before being released. The new law also allows the prison director to decide early release eligibility on a range of factors, including a past record of violence, something the department had said court rulings previously prohibited.
The Illinois Department of Corrections has started reviewing records of potentially eligible inmates.
"This will be an ongoing, careful and thoughtful process," Corrections spokeswoman Stacey Solano said in a statement.
The previous program allowed an inmate to get up to six months' sentence credit for good behavior. The AP found that some inmates served as few as eight days because the Corrections Department secretly waived a minimum 60-day penitentiary stay to move inmates out faster.
The General Assembly has since put that two-month requirement into law.
Lawmakers approved the new early release program last spring, and Quinn signed it into law. But it wasn't until this week that a legislative committee approved rules for the program. The Corrections Department may proceed after the rules are officially filed with the secretary of state in the coming weeks.
"The department is committed to the responsible implementation of sentence credit as safety and security remains the top priority," Solano said.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union representing most of the Corrections Department's 11,000 employees, agrees that if done properly, good-behavior incentives such as shaving time off sentences are sound management functions.
But AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall said the union remains cautious.
He noted that even as the inmate population grows, Quinn is closing two prisons the governor says are too costly to operate. The high-security "supermax" prison in Tamms closed on Jan. 4, and officials are planning to soon close the Dwight women's facility and shift inmates among three existing prisons.
AFSCME has opposed Quinn on closures, as well as reducing employee head count and penitentiary crowding.
"Given the Quinn administration's record of reckless closures, employee layoffs, inattention to overcrowding and its previous early release fiasco, we are extremely cautious about the prospect of a good-time program implemented by this administration," Lindall said.