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Cook County Jail | Sun-Times files

Cook County Jail | Sun-Times files

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Updated: October 7, 2013 1:13PM

Gov. Pat Quinn said in a radio interview last week that Illinois prisons are not overcrowded. But the state still incarcerates too many people, and its prisons hold some 50 percent more inmates than they were designed to handle. It’s costing a broke state a fortune.

A number of sensible initiatives to reduce the state’s prison population are in place, with Quinn’s support, but the state has much to do to follow through on those programs and to add new ones. For example, a bill introduced Wednesday by state Rep. Arthur Turner (D-Chicago) would enable some inmates older than 50 who have been in prison for at least 25 years to get hearings for release. That’s an idea that makes sense for offenders who no longer are a danger to the public. The prison gates wouldn’t automatically open, but the inmates would be given a chance to make their pitch.

On a promising note, Adult Redeploy Illinois, which helps communities treat offenders without sending them to prison, is one of the few state programs that actually got an increase in this year’s state budget.

Across the nation, states are turning away from a lock-’em-up policy to fight crime. On Thursday, in fact, the PEW Charitable Trusts reported that state policy revisions across the country, a decline in juvenile arrests, and changes in the youth population have brought down the juvenile commitment rate to about half its peak in the late 1990s.

The situation in Illinois, though, is closer to that in California, where the prison population also exceeded its design capacity by about 50 percent, according to the John Howard Association of Illinois. A federal court has ordered California, which already has reduced its prison population by about 46,000, to lower its total by an additional 9,600 inmates by the end of the year. Illinois would be wise to avoid a similar legal battle in which it becomes hard to make progress, because every step must be approved by a court.

Prisons take a $1.3 billion annual bite out of the state’s highly stressed budget. When so much of the money goes to operating prisons, too little is left for programming to cut recidivism, job training and drug education, which also can reduce crime. Almost all prisoners eventually are released, and we have a strong selfish interest in helping them avoid re-offending.

As part of his efforts to reduce prison spending, Quinn has closed two youth incarceration facilities and two adult prisons. Political opponents already are saying that’s contributing to overcrowding, although the two shuttered adult prisons together housed only about 1,500 inmates.

We need political leaders of all stripes to support the idea of diverting nonviolent offenders to destinations other than prison. It’s an issue easy to demagogue because some people who leave prison inevitably again commit crimes, no matter how carefully the risks of release are assessed. Serial rapist Julius Anderson, for example, on Wednesday was sentenced to a new 75-year term because he attacked three women in Bucktown shortly after his 2009 release on parole.

Part of what drove Illinois’ prison numbers so high was an outcry that doomed the state’s now-defunct Meritorious Good Time early-release program. Last winter, a replacement early-release program offering “supplemental sentence credits” went into operation, but so far has not released enough inmates to significantly bring down the overall population.

Illinois finally has begun moving in the right direction on revising its incarceration policies. It’s an effort that requires a long-term commitment and constant prodding.

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