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Editorial: Bring back early release

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Updated: July 12, 2012 6:06AM

Two and a half years ago, in the heat of an election in which nobody wanted to look weak on law and order, Gov. Quinn suspended the practice of springing from prison early inmates who have behaved well behind bars.

That was a terrible move. The state’s already overcrowded and enormously expensive prison population has gone up as a result, to 48,300 inmates from 45,000, and the public in the long run is no more safe — arguably even less safe.

Repeated studies show that prison inmates who participate in any kind of self-improvement activity, such as taking GED classes, with the reward of an early release dangled before them, are less likely to return to crime when finally freed. Moreover, as every prison guard knows, an inmate looking for that “good time” credit is more likely to toe the line, making him easier and safer to handle.

A bill passed by the Illinois General Assembly this spring and soon to arrive on Quinn’s desk would bring back the awarding of meritorious good time. It would allow up to 180 days of good time for lower-level offenders who have completed educational programs, taken part in other self-improvement programs or otherwise demonstrated good behavior.

For the sake of the state’s taxpayers, and in the conviction that society should pay more than lip service to goal of rehabilitation, we urge Gov. Quinn to sign the bill into law.

The proposed law, Senate Bill 2621, follows standard practices in other states and builds in a number of safeguards. Prisoners convicted of a long list of violent offenses, from murder to rape, would be ineligible for good-time credit. Prisoners convicted of only slightly less serious offenses, such as deviant sexual assault, could be awarded no more than 90 days of sentencing credits.

A prisoner’s entire criminal record, not just the possibly lesser offense for which he currently is serving time, would be weighed. That — the need to take into consideration an inmate’s past offenses — was a major omission in a previous early release program ended by Quinn.

And the state Department of Corrections would be required to submit an annual report to the governor explaining how and why it rewarded each inmate early release credits. If the governor decides DOC is awarding credits too easily, he could order a tightening up.

Let’s be clear about something: No early-release program is fail-safe. A big percentage of ex-inmates, released early or not, go right back to a life of crime. A relative few will do something horrendous.

This will lead to big headlines and outraged demands that Quinn kill this latest system of meritorious good time. It’s going to happen.

And that would be an excellent example of the perfect being the enemy of the good.

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