By Bethany Jaeger
About 1,000 prisoners who committed non-violent crimes will start being released from the Illinois Department of Corrections “within a couple of weeks” as a way to ease overcrowding and budget constraints, according to a plan announced today by department director Michael Randle.
The announcement came with a $4 million boost from the governor’s office. About $2 million of that is slated for so-called mandatory supervised electronic detention, or releasing non-violent drug offenders early from prison and giving them ankle bracelets and parole officers.
Reducing the average daily population by 1,000 could save the agency about $5 million a year, according to Januari Smith, spokeswoman for the corrections department. At one time, it was rumored that the state could release between 5,000 to 10,000 prisoners, which would have included more categories of prisoners than Randle intends to make eligible.
Randle plans to be stricter than state statute by excluding sex offenders, parole violators, inmates with active protective orders and inmates with a history of domestic violence from being eligible for early release. Since 1993, state law has allowed certain nonviolent offenders to be released within 90 days of their parole dates as long as they served home detention, including wearing electronic monitoring devices.
The concept of early release is supported by the John Howard Association, a Chicago-based prison reform group, as well as Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities. In a statement, president of TASC, Pamela Rodriguez, said: “In our extensive history working with the justice system, we have found that alternatives to incarceration are far more effective ways to reduce crime for the vast majority of non-violent, short-term drug-involved offenders.”
Bill Ryan, a prison reform activist since 1994 and publisher of the prisoner-written newspaper Stateville Speaks, said for my September column for Illinois Issues that he is “definitely in favor” of early release. However, he added, “my concern is that many of the people leaving prison on electronic monitoring will require some sort of supportive services, more than just having an ankle bracelet and a parole officer.”
Dubbed the Illinois Crime Reduction Act of 2009, the other part of the package will dedicate an additional $2 million to community-based services in an attempt to help non-violent drug offenders stay out of jail.
According to the department, the prison population has increased from 18,000 in fiscal year 1986 to nearly 46,000 in fiscal year 2009, much of it attributed to the higher rate of imprisonment for non-violent drug offenders.
Friday’s announcement did not mention layoffs of prison staff, but Smith said 419 prison workers already have received their notices and will be terminated September 30. Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration has said it will have to lay off as many as 1,000 corrections employees because it could not strike an agreement with Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees to take furlough days or forgo their annual raises. Some prison workers could be eligible to fill vacancies in other prisons.
The amount of overtime hours worked, however, has been increasing and cost the department $37 million two years ago, according to a recent audit. In 2005, the department employed 13,670 people, according to the Illinois Criminal Justice Authority. In August, Smith said the department employed 10,951.