GOP hopefuls agree prison fixes are elusive

SPRINGFIELD - The four Republican candidates for governor are in agreement when it comes to Illinois prisons: There are too many inmates, not enough cells and quick action is needed to address what they say is a public safety threat.

"The population in our correctional facilities is dramatically overcrowded," state Treasurer Dan Rutherford, who's in the running for Illinois' top office, said in responding to a questionnaire from The Associated Press. "There are 49,000 inmates in a system designed for 32,000. This is not safe for the employees or those incarcerated."

But none of the candidates - Rutherford, Sens. Bill Brady and Kirk Dillard and venture capitalist Bruce Rauner - offers a clear-cut, short-term plan for fixing the overcrowding situation, short of reopening recently shuttered facilities.

They are all at least skeptical of building new prisons, with most suggesting long-term strategic planning to determine the best way to house a population the Illinois Department of Corrections predicts will top 49,700 by September.

In a departure from Republicans' traditional lock-'em-up philosophy, the GOP candidates are open to the idea of alternative sentencing for low-level offenders. They would use programs such as Adult Redeploy Illinois, which diverts nonviolent offenders in several counties from prison by offering drug treatment, therapy or other services.

And all but Rauner would at least consider reopening Tamms, a super-maximum security lockup in far southern Illinois that was closed in 2012.

The questionnaire answers left little to distinguish between the candidates, right down to criticizing Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn.

"I disagree with the governor's decision to close Tamms; our worst criminals are now in other prisons and endangering the lives of guards," said Dillard, of Hinsdale, who wants to reopen the facility. "The governor is now trying to control the population with excessive 'early release' which also threatens public safety."

The Corrections Department has said it continually assesses short- and long-term facility needs based on the number of prisoners coming into the system. But it has faced blistering criticism over its handling of prisons since Quinn took office in 2009.

His razor-thin election victory in 2010 was partly blamed on a scandal involving the early release of hundreds of violent prisoners, a program he shut down for three years. During those years, the population soared by as much as 4,000 inmates. The program resumed last year under stricter rules.

Then, in 2012 Quinn announced the closure of Tamms and the Dwight women's maximum-security lockup in Livingston County. Illinois also sold to the federal government a maximum-security penitentiary in Thomson that was completed in 2001 but never fully opened because of budget constraints.

As for Dillard's criticism, Quinn's Corrections Department disagrees that the closure of Tamms makes general prisons more dangerous or that use of the new good-conduct release policy is excessive.

Inmates formerly housed at Tamms were held there because they were gang leaders or caused trouble elsewhere, and are housed in traditional maximum-security prisons now. But the Corrections Department says they are held securely and officials contend inmate assaults on staff members are down in the past year.

Figures on early release - now known as "Supplemental Sentence Credit" - gathered and analyzed by the AP show that since the program began in March 2013, the agency has released about 2,900 inmates up to six months early for good conduct behind bars.

Just over 4 percent have returned to prison because of violating the terms of their release.

And regarding overcrowding, the Corrections Department says there's enough space to house inmates safely at no risk to the public. They say the 32,000-inmate design capacity is based on outdated housing practices.

The candidates say there's no money to build new prisons - and if it becomes necessary, it must only come after careful consideration of long-term needs.

"Any new prison construction would have to be justified by the long-term facility needs assessment plan I will institute as governor and be included in the state's long-term capital planning process," Brady said.

Rutherford would consider "how closed correctional facilities could be utilized to alleviate current pressures."

Each is open to the idea of alternative sentencing.

"For certain types of crimes and offenders, there can be a place for alternative sentencing," Rauner said.

Tio Hardiman of Hillside, former director of a nonprofit organization that combats violence in the Chicago region, is taking on Quinn in the Democratic primary. In response to the questionnaire, Hardiman said he too believes in alternative sentencing and would support building new prisons to replace the state's oldest lockups.

Quinn declined to participate in the AP questionnaire, saying his views on important state issues are well-known.

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