Quinn's plan to release prisoners stirs debate

September 21, 2009 (CHICAGO) Prison reform advocates have been saying it for many years: that states could save billions of dollars by treating instead of incarcerating drug users.

The message is finally hitting home in deficit-ravaged Illinois where the administration of Gov. Pat Quinn plans an early release for 1,000 state prison inmates.

The majority of freed inmates would be returned to the Illinois jurisdiction that sent them to prison in the first place: Cook County. Chicago Police Superintendent Jody Weis wishes there was no need for an early release program.

"From a law enforcement program, you'd always like to have people stay in jail to compete their sentences," said Weis.

But the Quinn administration--still unable to get a tax increase to offset a $10 billion deficit--says releasing non-violent inmates will save millions, pose no threat to law and order, and begin reform the criminal justice system.

"We're not just going to use tax money to throw people in a warehouse and they commit more crimes," said Gov. Quinn.

There would be an initial release of 1,000 inmates, most non-violent drug possession offenders with less than one year remaining on their sentences.

Early parolees possibly would be required to live in their family homes with electronic monitors.

Pam Rodriguez of the Treatment Alternatives to Safe Communities (TASC) program is hoping the state makes good on a promise to provide $2 million for monitors and substance abuse treatment for those released.

"Statistics say about half of those who go into the Department of Corrections have never had treatment before. I would say this is an opportunity to get them services," said Pam Rodriguez, TASC.

But after his tax increase proposal floundered last summer, the governor cut state-supported drug treatment programs by tens of millions of dollars. Superintendent Weis is not convinced that all those released will become drug-free, law-abiding citizens.

"We'll have profiles put in place to put an eye on them," said Weis.

Finally, a state commission formed to study why blacks and Latinos make up a disproportionately high percentage of prison inmates will monitor the program to ensure inmates from those groups get most of the early releases.

"If you look at who's going in, I would assume there should be an equal representation in term of who is coming out," said State Rep. Art Turner, (D) Chicago.

Quinn administration officials say that releasing 1,000 prisoners would save about $5 million in the cost of keeping them behind bars. But it will also help make possible a bigger plan to layoff up to a thousand correctional officers.

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