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Illinois Issues
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State of the State: A Lengthy Audit Highlights Problems in Prisons That Have Been Growing for Years

Bethany Jaeger
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Gov. Pat Quinn plans to lay off as many as 1,000 prison workers at the same time a recent state audit reveals that staffing shortages within the Illinois Department of Corrections contributed to mounting overtime costs.

The price of workers putting in extra hours spiked from $19.2 million to $37 million in fiscal years 2007 to 2008. 

Currently managing the fiscal year 2010 budget, Quinn’s administration is confronted with a prison overcrowding “crisis” that has been growing since the 1970s. Today, Illinois’ 28 prisons remain 32 percent over capacity, according to a state audit released in early August.

Charles N. Wheeler III, columnist for this magazine and a longtime Statehouse journalist, wrote an article in 2000 for the Taxpayers’ Federation of Illinois that ominously foreshadowed the problems now facing the department. He warned then that an economic recession would unravel the entire state budget, particularly the public safety piece of the pie, which has grown from 2 percent of the state’s general funds in the 1970s to about 4.2 percent today. The corrections department’s operating costs have hovered around $1.2 billion since 2000.

As Wheeler points out, legislators’ tough-on-crime mentality has combined with new state laws, enhanced prison penalties for serious crimes, court decisions, high recidivism rates, unemployment rates and other social trends to increase the prison population. 

The bad news is that lawmakers have been more inclined to enact tough-on-crime laws than to reform the prison system, ignoring the consequences of spending more on overcrowded prisons than on preventative and rehabilitative services.

The good news is that the current economic and fiscal constraints pose a prime opportunity for a shift in focus.

“I think that this is a moment where education of both the public and the legislature might actually result in good policy,” says Hanke Gratteau, executive director of the John Howard Association, a longstanding prison reform group based in Chicago.

Recent budget cuts for all state operations reduced the Department of Corrections’ funding from $1.3 billion last year to less than $1.1 billion this year. As part of that plan, the administration intends to lay off 1,073 corrections employees.

But Quinn can’t — or shouldn’t — lay off 1,000 prison workers without adjusting the system’s ability to handle an already overcrowded population.

Consider what Auditor General Bill Holland found in a recent review of the Department of Corrections:

The audit only pertains to fiscal years 2007 and 2008, when the corrections department was managed by former Director Roger Walker, who was appointed by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Quinn removed Walker in June and replaced him with Michael Randle.

Deficiencies noted in the audit include everything from spending more than the General Assembly authorized to failing to spend money earmarked for hiring new front-line staff.

“This goes to the heart of the failure of the management of the department,” Holland says, adding that because there have not been dramatic changes in the management since the two years examined in the audit, the foundation going forward is weak. “I think the new director has got some real soul-searching to do with his management team.”

According to the audit, the General Assembly authorized spending $11.7 million to hire 231 new front-line workers in fiscal year 2007, but the department only hired 154. The next year, the legislature allotted $12 million to hire 500 new employees, but only six were reported as being hired. Instead, according to the audit, the department used the money to pay existing staff, which also included more expensive overtime costs. At the same time, the department reported that it lost nearly 780 employees.

Also contributing to the $37 million in overtime costs in 2008, 126 employees were identified as working so many extra hours that they earned more $100,000. Their normal salary rates ranged from $40,000 to $75,000 a year.

Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents many prison workers, says the most recent tab for understaffing all Illinois prisons exceeded $60 million in fiscal year 2009, which ended June 30. “That’s a fivefold increase over just a few years ago.”

“On its face, it may seem counter intuitive,” Lindall adds, “but it’s simple math that hiring new staff at the lowest end of the salary scale and paying them straight time is far cheaper than paying time and a half to more senior employees.”

In 2005, the department employed 13,670 people, according to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority. Last month, it employed 10,951.

To handle the budget crunch and the capacity problem in the Department of Corrections, Quinn plans to save $125 million by laying off employees, restructuring facilities and releasing as many as 10,000 low-level prisoners early.

Former Gov. Jim Thompson tried to grant 90-day blocks of “good time” credit for minor offenders but was challenged in court. The Illinois Supreme Court then ruled the department could grant no more than that amount. Since 1993, state law has allowed certain nonviolent offenders to be released within 90 days of their parole dates as long as they serve home detention, including wearing electronic monitoring devices.

That statute allows such inmates as sex offenders to be released early on home confinement, although Januari Smith, spokeswoman for the corrections department, says Randle wants to exclude sex offenders, parole violators and inmates with active protective orders from being eligible for Quinn’s early release program.

Under Quinn’s plan, inmates would only be eligible if they had committed such nonviolent offenses as drug possession and were within a year of their parole dates, anyway.

But it’s not set in stone. “We haven’t moved forward with it. It’s still under review,” Smith said in mid-August.

The John Howard Association not only supports the early release option but advocated for it even before the current budget crunch, according to Gratteau.

“The prison population is too big. We are spending too many dollars to incarcerate people, really, for not much public benefit. These are nonviolent offenders. They pose no public safety issue, and it’s very expensive to keep them locked up.”

The cost of housing each prisoner increased from $19,543 in 2000 to $23,147 in 2008, according to state audits. Inmates under maximum security at Tamms Correctional Center cost more than $67,000 each, according to the corrections department. 

While Quinn doesn’t propose releasing as many prisoners as courts have ordered California to do — letting out about 40,000 prisoners to reduce the population, which is nearly 200 percent of capacity — Illinois is on the verge of releasing nonviolent prisoners without ensuring they would have the support they need to stay out of jail.

Gratteau was right. Prisons have long been overcrowded.

Wheeler writes that in the 1990s, the system held about 32,000 inmates in buildings intended to hold about 21,000. That was about 52 percent over capacity, far more than the 32 percent over capacity today in Illinois prisons. But it still means that two years ago, about 45,200 inmates were housed in facilities designed to hold 34,200. 

According to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, admissions into the system increased in almost every year between 1995 and 2005, mirroring national trends.

The authority’s 2008 report also says recidivism rates spiked from 39.1 percent in 1995 to more than 50 percent in 2000. 

However, one bright spot since then is that recidivism rates dropped in 2008. The department reported 23 percent fewer arrests of parolees between fiscal years ’04 and ’07.

One major factor was a focus on such community-based support services as the Safer Foundation and Urban League’s Safer Return, which linked parolees to education, job training and substance abuse treatment in Chicago. Such programs were recommended by a panel commissioned by Blagojevich, who charged it with finding new ways to help former inmates re-enter their communities and stay out of prison. 

Although funding for that program has remained, this year’s state budget reduced funding for other community-based services that could help parolees address the problems that landed them in jail in the first place. As a result, waiting lists could get longer, services could close altogether and minor drug offenders could slip back into old habits.

Bill Ryan, a prison reform activist since 1994 and publisher of the prisoner-written Stateville Speaks newspaper, says he strongly supports Quinn’s plan for early release of nonviolent offenders. However, he says, “my concern is that many of the people leaving prison on electronic monitoring will require some sort of supportive services, more than just having an ankle bracelet and a parole officer.”

Parole officers, he says, “see themselves as enforcers, not supporters.” 

He adds that failing to invest in rehabilitative services misses a tremendous opportunity to reduce the prison population, prevent recidivism and save money.

Because the Department of?Corrections is not taking advantage of the chance to shift money from incarceration to preventative and rehabilitative services, “potentially, we are setting up a revolving door for them,” Gratteau says. “I mean, the revolving door is there anyway. It just may spin a little more quickly.”


Lawmakers have been more inclined to enact tough-on-crime laws than to reform the prison system, ignoring the consequences of spending more on overcrowded prisons than on preventative and rehabilitative services.

Bethany Jaeger can be reached at capitolbureau@aol.com.

Illinois Issues, September 2009

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