Local Editorials

Our view: Cut costs, state prison population

Sending people to the slammer costs real money.

And like the state’s budget deficit, Illinois’ prison population has grown. On Nov. 30, 2011, there were 48,620 in Illinois’ prison system, far more than the population of Crystal Lake.

The prisons themselves are not growing, however. Only two of the state’s 25 prisons were not over their intended capacity, and six of them were at more than double their intended capacity.

The Illinois Department of Corrections says that’s not a big deal because the buildings can hold many more people than they were designed for, and in fact the state has room for about 51,200 inmates in its prisons.

But rather than challenge state officials to actually try to cram that many people into prison, its time for the state to look at ways to reduce the number of inmates in its prisons.

Clearly, the state’s most dangerous and despicable criminals should remain behind bars, and in fact the state’s most secure prison, Tamms Correctional Center, has space to spare. But what about the drug offenders, petty criminals, and others who file in and out of prison for short sentences?

One logical starting point is with reinstating a state program that allowed the director of the Corrections Department to cut inmates’ sentences by as much as six months if they displayed good behavior behind bars.

That program ended in 2009, after it was discovered that Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration was accelerating the release of inmates to the point where some were released after serving only a couple of weeks. Such reckless release of criminals rightfully outraged voters. But there are regulations that can be imposed by the Legislature that can balance the safety of society against the need to alleviate prison overcrowding.

More broadly, it is time that the practice of imposing mandatory minimum sentences – particularly for drug crimes – should be re-examined. Such mandated sentences eliminate judges’ discretion and contribute to the growth in the prison population and costs to taxpayers.

As with most everything in its budget these days, Illinois must look for ways to reduce spending if it is ever to solve its budget crisis.

The alternative is to do nothing, allow the prison population to continue to grow, and the state to continue throwing money at keeping people behind bars while cutting other, more constructive programs and likely ensuring that conditions in Illinois penetentiaries continue to deteriorate.

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