Education vs. Incarceration: The Early Release Program in Illinois

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With a current state budget deficit in
Illinois of some $13 billion, among the
largest in the country, state legislators
are making tough decisions about
where to save money. Recently, Governor
Pat Quinn proposed an “early
release” program for prison inmates
who have committed nonviolent crimes, but it was quickly
met by a political backlash. The state has also seen
severe cuts in public education. With the current economic
crisis, Illinois residents will soon have to decide which
they value more education or incarceration.
In July 2009, Governor Quinn announced plans for
cutbacks in corrections that would save a projected
$125 million. It included an early release program that
would eventually free more than 1,700 inmates in Illinois
prisons and put them on parole. Similar programs
have been implemented in California and Ohio with
some success. According to the Taxpayer Action Board, a
panel appointed by Quinn to analyze the budget for possible
reductions, the state could save as much as $65
million this year and potentially $400 million annually
by looking at alternatives to incarceration. This is in
addition to increased productivity of those who would
remain out of prison, not to mention the emotional benefit
to families if their loved ones are not sent away. It
costs on average $24,000 to house a prisoner for a year,
while it only costs $4,000 to supervise a parolee. For
many low-level offenders, parole is obviously a much
better option.
With fewer people in prison, Quinn wanted to lay off
more than 1,000 correctional officers. Republication lawmakers
warned that reductions in staff would threaten
security at prisons. AFSCME, the union that represents
correctional officers in Illinois, promptly filed a lawsuit
that blocked the firings. In negotiations, the union accepted
deferred pay raises for two years and voluntary furloughs.
No other alternatives were offered to save the state
in staffing costs.
In 2009, the overall budget for the Illinois Department
of Corrections was $1.44 billion. This was what it cost to
house roughly 45,000 inmates in 28 prisons. In comparison,
the state expenditures for public universities in Illinois
is roughly equivalent, with $1.4 billion being spent in
2007. This was what it cost to educate approximately
200,000 students at nine public universities.
Currently, lawmakers are looking for ways to cut one
billion dollars from public education which has a total
budget of $10 billion, one quarter of the state expenditures.
Within the University of Illinois system, some
11,000 employees were required to take four furlough
days in 2010 to save the state $82 million. This was in
addition to a wage freeze already in place. On the Urbana
campus, dozens of Facilities and Services workers have
been laid off. Positions have not been filled for faculty who
have moved or retired.
During the primary election for Governor, Democratic
contender Dan Hynes criticized Quinn’s early release
program, saying it was done in “secret.” By December
2009, it came out in the newspapers that more than a
dozen of those released early had already reoffended. Little
mention was made of the statistics showing that, without
education, work, or re-entry programs, half of
inmates reoffend. Quinn blamed Illinois Corrections
Director Michael Randle for the mistake. A state law was
passed by the legislature that required inmates had to
serve at least 61 days of a 12-month sentence. Those who
had been released early were hauled back into
prison. Quinn narrowly won the primary
in March 2010 and was
declared the Democratic Party
In the run-up to the primary
election, local
State’s Attorney Julia
Rietz, who was supporting
Dan Hynes’ campaign,
attempted to do a
political hit job on
Quinn. The News-
Gazette ran a story in
which Rietz said she
had obtained a list of
the 21 early release
inmates from Champaign
County, a list given
to her by Hynes. Rietz
called Quinn “irresponsible”
for releasing the individuals
without notifying
her first. Most of those on
the list had been locked up
for violating the terms of
their DUI convictions and
had sentences ranging from 12 to 24 months.
I made contact with one of the early release inmates
from Champaign County. Luke Durso is a self-described
“country boy” from the small town of Sidney, Illinois. He
was caught driving with a suspended license after getting
a DUI in April 2009. He was given a public defender who
he said, “didn’t try very hard.” Judge Chase Leonard sentenced
him to 12 months in prison, of which he had to
serve 61 days before being paroled. Durso said he was
about to finish a three-year apprenticeship as a Union
Glazer working with metal and glass for Local 1168, but
lost the job when he was sentenced to prison. He was
sent to Western Illinois Correctional Center in Mt. Sterling,
a level two medium security prison where inmates
spend 22 hours locked up with two hours of recreational
time. As part of the early release program, Durso got out
after 34 days of time served. He got two jobs laying dry
wall and working on a horse ranch. His parole officer
showed up one morning several weeks later and was
apologetic, but said he had to take him back to prison.
Durso returned to serve the remaining 27 days at Logan
Correctional Center in Lincoln, Illinois.
I talked to Durso after he was released and back home
in Sidney. Under the terms of intensive house arrest, he
had to see a parole officer every two weeks, check in every
day by calling a phone number, and submit to drug testing.
He was happy to be out of prison, but the two
terms he had served in prison had turned
his life upside down. He was 25 years
old when he was locked up. He owns a
house and has a four-year-old son. His
inconsistent income has put him in a
financial bind.
I asked Durso about the guys he was
locked up with. He said most of them
were “decent people” with families and
jobs, not “dirtball crackheads.” According
to Durso, 90% of the guys he met were
locked up for “dirty drops” they had
smoked marijuana while they were on probation
and failed a drug test.
Whether people like Durso should be punished
for drunk driving is unquestionable. But
it is doubtful that prison time is the best option
for nonviolent offenders. Thousands are being
sent to prison for years to sit in a jail cell for hours
on end with no benefit to themselves or society. They
are simply providing the raw material for a self-serving
system which has lobbied for three decades to build
more prisons, employ more correctional officers, and
hire more prosecutors.
State lawmakers in Springfield are not expected to
come up with a solution to the current budget shortfall
until after the November election. Spending for prisons,
schools, and other services is outpacing the revenue that
can be brought in by taxes. If anything will roll back the
trend of mass incarceration in the United States, it may be
the current financial crisis.
Thanks to IMC interns Adrienne Thomas, Megan Bandy,
Joe Cajindos, and Sarah Anane for assisting with research for
this project.

About Brian Dolinar

Brian Dolinar has been a community journalist since 2004.
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