Monday, August 24, 2009
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Quinn grapples with prison cuts amid budget mess

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[August 24, 2009]  EAST ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Close some prisons. Release low-risk inmates and hire more parole officers. Send imprisoned illegal immigrants to their home countries. Save hundreds of millions of dollars.

Gov. Pat Quinn won't publicly tip his hand about to what extent such suggestions in June by a bipartisan group he tapped to find ways to make the cash-strapped state's government leaner will guide how he applies the cost-cutting scalpel to the state's prison system.

But handed autonomy by the state's lawmakers to make cuts needed to close an $11.6 billion budget gap, the Democrat is showing signs that the Taxpayer Action Board's tips might have gotten his attention.

He plans to shed some 1,000 corrections jobs -- more than 400 at six prisons by the end of next month -- to save perhaps $125 million. He's considering releasing nonviolent offenders; prison union leaders have said as many as 11,000 of the state's some 45,500 inmates could be eligible. And he's suggested that "downsizing" some prisons isn't out of the question.


Quinn isn't elaborating beyond that, even about the timing or scope of the cuts. Nor is Michael Randle, the state's new corrections chief, who didn't respond to recent requests for interviews by The Associated Press.

All of it has stoked speculation about what might be on the table and how deep the cuts might be in the state Department of Corrections, which last fiscal year had a budget of $1.44 billion, trailing only the state's spending on human services and health care.

None of it is bound to make everyone happy. For example, cuts to the state's prison system are making members of the House Prison Reform Committee cringe. Republican committee member Rep. Jim Sacia, a former FBI agent, claimed, "I've never seen an agency be more of a whipping boy than the Illinois Department of Corrections." A Democratic colleague, Rep. Eddie Washington, believes deeper cuts are in order.

Both lawmakers respect Quinn's diligence. They don't envy his task.

"He's proven to be a very competent, capable governor, given the monster he inherited," Sacia said, crediting Quinn with getting bipartisan input. "He's doing a commendable job taking on a difficult situation. Accordingly, he has to make the tough cuts and, therefore, becomes the bad guy to everybody.

"He's trying to make the difficult decisions we slid out of, and I'm not proud of that."

Quinn is expected to meet Monday with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents 13,000 Illinois prison workers. Anders Lindall, a spokesman, says the union craves details, worried that cuts could further endanger prison workers the union claims already are outmanned.

Other states already have made such tough choices, cutting back on the massive expense of running prisons by eliminating guards, trimming drug treatment and parole programs, and, in some states, releasing inmates early.

In announcing its Illinois recommendations, the Taxpayer Action Board noted that the state's prison population, at more than 45,000 inmates, has ballooned by more than 600 percent between 1970 and 2000 while Illinois' general population climbed just 11 percent.

The board suggested having those who commit drug and property crimes -- as well as low-risk inmates older than 50, a demographic that's nearly 10 percent of the state's prison population -- spend less time in prison. The group also said the state should expand electronic monitoring programs for parolees, hire more parole officers and work with private organizations to establish education and job programs.

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The board suggested it was a matter of money: The average annual cost to incarcerate an inmate in Illinois is roughly $30,200, compared with $4,000 per parolee per year.

"If the state can effectively minimize the prison population, it will have considerable positive financial and social implications," the board concluded.

The Taxpayer Action Board also pressed that Illinois negotiate with the home countries the return of the some 1,700 illegal immigrants the state's corrections department says are housed in prisons statewide.

The changes, the panel said, could save hundreds of millions of dollars.

Part of the solution, that group insists, might be closing some prisons -- something the state has flirted with in recent years. Proposals to mothball the Stateville prison in Joliet and another aging lockup in Pontiac were eventually discarded, partly due to the threat of litigation.

"Targeted prison closures appear to be an attractive option" that "provides a significant opportunity over the long term," the board concluded. The panel noted that an internal Department of Corrections analysis suggested that closing a prison could save $30 million to $40 million a year. Much of that would be offset by the cost of housing the inmates elsewhere, making the net benefit between $4 million and $6 million.

Washington figures the state's only "supermax" prison should be the first to go. The Tamms Correctional Center in deep southern Illinois is where offenders deemed "the worst of the worst" spend 23 hours a day in their cells, spawning complaints of inhumane treatment. Quinn expects Randle to take a long look at prisoner treatment there, then recommend to him what should be done.

Washington insists Tamms, with some 260 inmates, is at a little more than half capacity, making it underused and, with one employee for every inmate, overstaffed. And he submits its invincibility is no big deal: Escapes have been a rarity at any state lockup.

Washington considers Quinn's plans for layoffs the "wise and needed thing to do," and he submits that such cuts "may not go far enough."

The union's Lindall counters that prison staffing already is down 25 percent in the past eight years, leaving little room for more job cuts. He notes the state has been shelling out overtime -- $44.3 million in the 2008 fiscal year and perhaps around $60 million this budget cycle -- when it might be cheaper to hire corrections officers at straight time.

[Associated Press; By JIM SUHR]

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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