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Advocates: Bring back Illinois prisoner early release

CHICAGO — Prison  reform advocates offered ideas Monday on ways to cut costs and curb recidivism, including reinstating two controversial early release programs that Gov. Pat Quinn halted late last year. Chicago attorney Jean Maclean Snyder, among dozens who testified at a four-hour joint Illinois House committee hearing, claimed early release decreases crime and saves money.

The programs weren't perfect, she said, but serving a full sentence also is no guarantee an inmate won't commit another crime upon release.

Both early release programs been heavily scrutinized and caused headaches for Quinn.

More than 1,700 inmates, hundreds of them violent, were released from prison after as little as three weeks behind bars in a program known as "MGT Push." Additionally, 233 nonviolent inmates were released under another program which Quinn announced in the fall of 2009 as part of a moneysaving effort.

Quinn, who came under fire for risking public safety and changing his story about what he knew, halted both programs after The Associated Press reported the existence of MGT Push. The program got its name from accelerating inmate awards of good-conduct credit, or "meritorious good time."

They included a man who served 14 days of a three-year robbery sentence and was arrested for assault the day after he was released.

Of 1,745 released, nearly 800, or 46 percent, have been returned to prison. Of those, more than 200, or 12 percent, have been returned to prison because they violated parole by being arrested, or were sent back on new convictions, according to Department of Corrections records reviewed by the AP.

Those averages fall only slightly below the state's average recidivism rate, which legislators at the hearing said ranges between 50 to 60 percent.

Rep. Karen Yarbrough, who hosted the hearing, said the decision to halt the program was "nothing but mired in politics."

"It's unfortunate because it's something that's used all across the United States," the Maywood Democrat said in an interview. "But because it came in the middle of a political campaign, then all of a sudden we're getting rid of the program. That's not the way you do public policy."

Snyder, who said early release can ease overcrowding, cited a 2008 report by the Illinois Governor's Commission that recommended early release as an alternative to prison and an advocacy group called the Sentencing Project, which studies similar programs in other states, including Kansas and Michigan.

Corrections Department director Michael Randle declined to say whether there was a possibility of reinstating the programs. He said both were "under review" and did not elaborate.

Much of Monday's testimony focused on prevention and cost cutting strategies for the Corrections Department, which has just over a $1 billion budget.

John Maki, a director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, proposed transferring more prisoners from high security prisons to lower-security ones where it is cheaper to house inmates.

Other suggestions included adding more sex education to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and reduce health care costs and asking state officials to beef up libraries that give prisoners exposure to the outside world.

"Spending on education and vocational programs is an investment," Maki said.

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