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
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
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
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
The changes, the panel said, could save hundreds of millions of
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]
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