DeKALB – A new law signed by Gov. Pat Quinn could bring some much needed relief to overcrowded state prisons, with county jails providing essential services to expedite the process.
Nonviolent offenders could get in and out of the prison system much quicker with more opportunities for “sentence credit” available, including at county jails, where prisoners can wait for months before sentencing.
Completing programs such as GED classes, adult education courses, substance abuse rehabilitation and behavior modification sessions in county jails could shave months off a sentence before inmates get to state prison.
The county offers a GED program – which has served 50 inmates in the past two years – and programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and mental health counseling sessions – which also would go toward sentence credit in the new law.
Rep. Robert Pritchard, R-Hinckley, supported the legislation and said safeguards such as a minimum of 60 days served should strike a balance between judicial fairness and fiscal relief for the prison system. Pritchard said he had seen a study showing that if the state could reduce its prison population of roughly 48,000 by 1,000 a year, it could save $38 million.
“We can mount up some good savings in a hurry if we are careful with the program,” Pritchard said.
But Sen. Christine Johnson, R-Shabbona, said the state’s failure to carefully operate an early-release program in the past tempers her confidence in the new law. She was the only senator to vote against the measure.
The state halted an early-release program in 2009 after it was discovered jail officials released some inmates, including violent offenders, weeks after sentencing.
Johnson said there still is too much discretion given to certain individuals in the new law, and the program easily can be abused.
“You have to do some pretty serious crimes to get into jail at this point in time,” Johnson said. “We really have to weigh the cost of keeping people in prison to the risk to public safety if we let them go.”
DeKalb County Sheriff Roger Scott said although it was good the county can ease the burden of overcrowded prisons, the change did little to help the problems at the county jail.
The DeKalb County Jail has struggled with overcrowding since 2004, when the number of inmates transported to other counties significantly increased. In 2004, DeKalb County spent $37,226 to house 18 prisoners in other counties. Those numbers ballooned in 2006 to 302 prisoners transported at a cost of $294,629.
The worst year for the county was 2011, with 794 prisoners spending a combined 16,868 days in other county jails, at a cost of $1 million. The DeKalb County Board has budgeted $1.1 million to rent jail space and transport inmates this year. The county has 28 prisoners in Boone and Kendall counties’ jails combined.
DeKalb County’s average daily jail population was 127 in April, well above the 72-inmate limit for functional operation.
“[The law] will help the state, but I don’t know that it is going to help at the county level all that much,” Scott said. “The population is going to continue to grow.”