First inmates freed as part of revamped early prisoner release program

2013-03-27T11:08:00Z First inmates freed as part of revamped early prisoner release programBy KURT ERICKSON - H&R Springfield Bureau Chief Herald-Review.com

SPRINGFIELD - A 34-year-old southern Illinois man last week became the first Illinois prison inmate sent home on parole under a revamped early release program.

Javier A. Morales, who had been incarcerated in the state's bursting-at-the-seams prison system since November 2011 in connection with a Williamson County theft case, was the first of 18 prisoners released since the new program got underway last month.

It's been three years since any resident of the Illinois Department of Corrections was released early from prison after Gov. Pat Quinn shut down a similar program.

The Chicago Democrat's decision to terminate the earlier version came after The Associated Press reported that some criminals were spending as few as eight days in prison before being released under an accelerated early release program.

The revamped law signed by Quinn last summer allows prison officials grant prisoners up to 180 days of sentence credits if they are non-violent offenders who participated in educational programs while behind bars.

The department says the program is working in its early stages.

"There have been no issues and the department will continue with the careful and responsible implementation of the program keeping public safety as the top priority," said Corrections spokeswoman Stacey Solano.

It remains too early to tell whether the program will make a dent in the surging prison population, which now stands at about 49,250 inmates in a system built to house about 32,000.

In addition to seeing an increase in inmates after Quinn canceled the old program, the governor closed the Tamms Correctional Center in southern Illinois and is in the process of shuttering the all-female lock-up in Dwight as part of a budget-cutting move.

Those closures have triggered a system-wide reshuffling of inmates that has led to hundreds of prisoners living in gymnasiums and other common areas. The state currently is being sued by inmates who allege that living conditions at the Vienna Correctional Center are inhumane.

Corrections officials and the sponsor of the new law, state Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, said the supplemental sentence program should not be viewed as a way to start chipping away at the inmate population.

Rather, they say it will be a way to give prisoners and incentive to behave while serving their sentences.

"I don't think the goal of this is to have a consistent number of releases," Raoul said. "If it's all about numbers, it's probably not working."

Solano said it is "impractical" to project how many inmates may receive credit as the program moves forward.

"Overall, the department expects this program to create a safer environment within its facilities as inmates have added incentive to behave in a positive manner," Solano noted.

On Friday, Phillip J. Barbee was among six inmates released on parole. The 35-year-old Macon County resident had just finished the first of three years behind bars in connection with a marijuana possession conviction, according to IDOC information.

Also that day, the department noted that Jason Adams, 32, left Southwestern Correctional Center and headed back to Livingston County, where he'd been convicted on drug possession and burglary charges. He'd been behind bars since July.

Monday marked the release of Erica N. Robinson, a 24-year-old Williamson County resident who had been in prison since September 2011 on a residential burglary conviction in Franklin County.

Without the program, Robinson would have had to stay in prison another two years, according to information provided by the department.

Raoul cautioned that the program may not always work as intended.

"Sooner or later there's going to be a case where an individual becomes a recidivist," Raoul said. "There's not going to be perfection. But, it will help manage the population better."

kurt.erickson@lee.net | (217) 782-4043

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