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updated: 2/22/2013 9:48 PM

Illinois prisons reintroduce early release program

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Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD -- Illinois prison officials announced a revamped sentence-reduction plan Friday, again offering early release to inmates who behave behind bars, more than three years after corner-cutting on a previous program freed hundreds of violent prisoners and almost cost Gov. Pat Quinn an election.

But the impact of the newly minted "supplemental sentence credit program" on the state's bloated prison population is uncertain because of its stringent criteria. It will likely mean the release of far fewer prisoners than under the previous plan Quinn suspended in December 2009 after a scandal revealed by The Associated Press.

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Quinn said this week the new plan should ease congestion in the state's prison system, which currently has 49,000 inmates in space designed for only 33,000. But John Maki, director of the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog, said the plan isn't a solution to crowding in the system, where officials are setting up temporary housing units.

The new process allows the Illinois Department of Corrections to grant inmates up to six months off their sentences based on the severity of their crimes, their criminal histories, their disciplinary records in prison and the efforts they make toward rehabilitation, such as by enrolling in courses or performing well in prison jobs.

The state must notify authorities in the county where a paroled inmate is to live at least two weeks prior to his or her release, and the inmate's name must be published on IDOC's "Community Notification of Inmate Early Release" webpage.

Quinn signed the measure into law last spring but only in recent weeks have prison officials completed the process for writing rules governing the process.

For decades, the agency awarded time off under a program called Meritorious Good Time. It went to most prisoners who had served an unofficially recognized minimum term of least 60 days in state prison. Because of time spent in county jails awaiting trial, many were eligible for release as soon as they completed the two-month stint, earning them the moniker "61-Day Wonders."

In late 2009, the AP asked IDOC about hundreds of inmates -- many of whom had committed violent crimes -- who had been set free within weeks or even days of their arrival at a state penitentiary. Officials denied a change had been made until the AP asked specifically about the elimination of the 60-day minimum stay and a population-reducing initiative dubbed "MGT Push."

The fallout led to a speedy roundup of parolees who had violated terms of their release, a law formalizing the 60-day minimum term, and another law creating the website listing inmates benefiting from early release. Quinn ultimately said he was unaware of the program authorized by then-Corrections Director Michael Randle, who resigned in mid-2010.

Quinn lost a double-digit lead and narrowly claimed victory in the Democratic primary, then won a squeaker in the fall general election against a conservative Republican in a solidly blue state.

The most significant legacy, however, has been an increase of 4,000 or more inmates statewide, pushing the prison population toward 50,000.

With the state facing continuing financial struggles, Quinn closed the costly Tamms high-security prison in January, along with three work-release centers, and plans to shutter the women's maximum-security lockup in Dwight.

The department announced last week that it is transforming gymnasiums at six medium-security prisons into housing areas for overflow minimum-security inmates, a need officials expect to decrease in the next few months.

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