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updated: 1/14/2013 4:59 AM

Editorial: The need for prudence in early release

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"This will be an ongoing careful and thoughtful process," Department of Corrections spokeswoman Stacey Solano said in an Associated Press story last week of plans to reinstate an early release program for inmates in Illinois prisons.

It had better be.

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The need for the program is obvious. The state is straining under well-known budget pressures that have led Gov. Pat Quinn to close two prisons and propose even more closures -- even though a prison system with capacity for 35,000 inmates is swelling with as many as 49,000.

But Solano's phrase is the key. The need to streamline the prison system is almost unchallengeable from a cost perspective. Illinois must learn to do everything less expensively in the years ahead, and that clearly includes managing its prisons.

Yet, we must not forget that the last time the Department of Corrections tried this three years ago -- with a nearly secret and little-thought-through program -- alarming stories began to mushroom of inmates sentenced to prison who served only a few weeks of their time.

Persons convicted of serious brutal crimes were being returned to the streets and quickly reoffending -- including one well-publicized case of an inmate who served just 14 days of his sentence for a brutal assault and was rearrested one day after his early release.

Much is different this time around, the DOC notes. For one thing, the legislature has weighed in with stricter direction about such key issues as how much time convicts must serve, who can be eligible for early release and how they can qualify.

Specific rules for implementing that direction are still being written but are expected to be filed within weeks. When that happens and the program gets under way in earnest, presumably the first priority will be public safety rather than simply easing the crowding in prisons.

And that thought begs another point of reflection, too, that the courts already deal with and that we in the public may need to become more attuned to. That is that we need to do a better job of identifying who goes into prisons in the first place as well as striving to improve the economic and social conditions that foster the kinds of serious, often violent crime that warrants incarceration.

That social debate, however, necessary as it may be, is more complex, and the programs and actions it could produce cannot simply materialize from the collective wave of a hand. So, in the meantime, early release is a notion that it makes sense to consider and implement.

But whether things really will be different this time around from what we saw three years ago will depend, as prison spokeswoman Solano indicated, on the care and thought that goes into implementing the program and selecting the individuals who presumably have earned the privilege of returning to free society.

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