SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Gov. Pat Quinn wants to make big changes to the Illinois corrections system, including greater use of parole supervision for low-level offenders. But his administration is struggling to explain how it can do that safely while also cutting back on traditional on-the-streets scrutiny of ex-convicts.
An Associated Press analysis of administration budget documents shows a drop of about 150 positions in the parole division, or potentially a reduction of more than one-third, a number the Corrections Department refuses to confirm or refute.
Quinn's proposed budget shows that spending on parolee monitoring would decline by $26 million and the number of employee positions would be reduced by 281. But it's not clear if that's all parole workers or includes other employees. Comparing that number with other staffing figures, the AP arrived at 148 planned reductions.
Asked for explanations this week, Corrections issued varying statements: First, that no one would be laid off and the budget documents might need to be corrected; then that some field jobs would be eliminated; then that parole "services" would not be cut but without any guarantees on how many employees would provide them; and finally that attrition would play a role in headcount reduction.
"While the figures in the budget book may be confusing in regard to the parole monitoring headcount, the department is not reducing parole functions — we are reorganizing the division," Corrections spokeswoman Stacey Solano said.
The changes would be part of a 9 percent cut to the $1.2 billion prison system Quinn proposes in the fiscal year that begins in July. He would close two maximum-security prisons and six "adult transition centers" which help inmates nearing completion of sentences get ready to re-enter communities.
But there are already far more inmates than there is bed space in the state's prisons, so the 1,100 residents of those work-release centers would largely be released and fitted with electronic monitoring bracelets, increasing workloads for parole officers and, some fear, reducing opportunities for ex-offenders to get schooling or drug-abuse treatment.
Quinn's idea raises questions among lawmakers who see the transition centers as a way to reduce crowded prisons. And the parole officers' union says caseloads already hit 120 in some areas, though Corrections officials say the average is half that.
The plans "suggest a reckless executive out of touch with the critical importance of protecting public safety and preserving good jobs," said Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. He said agency brass warned the union about the elimination of 200 positions, and told it nothing about a reorganization.
Quinn promised this week at a stop in Chicago's suburbs that the changes would be carried out "with public safety at all times as our top priority."
Solano said "more details will come out as we move this along," but said the shift would mean fewer face-to-face meetings between parole officers and nonviolent, compliant ex-cons while increasing scrutiny of more dangerous parolees. Some employees would be taken off the street to focus on improved pre-release evaluations that would identify the most volatile inmates being sent home and red-flag them for higher parole priority, she said.
Others would be assigned to increased telephone check-ins required of low-risk parolees, Solano said. But Corrections pays $6 million a year to a private company that operates an automated phone-check system, and Solano didn't immediately respond to a request for an explanation as to why Corrections employees would be needed for the task.
Legislators assigned to find ways to lower the prison population are frustrated because both Democrats and Republicans agree one solution would be to find alternatives to prison for low-risk offenders — like the transition centers, which would be shuttered.
"I want to make sure that they're being released into some type of facility where they are being monitored, where they're getting services, treatment, job skills, opportunities to be productive, where we can measure what's happening, versus putting a bracelet on somebody and sending them home," said Rep. Dennis Reboletti, an Elmhurst Republican who is part of a group of policymakers seeking to ease prison crowding.
The prison population has grown rapidly in recent years since Quinn shut down early release programs for well-behaved prisoners, which had helped control crowding for decades. He made the move in reaction to AP reporting about a program Corrections undertook, but initially denied, to accelerate those discharges, including for violent ex-cons who committed new crimes.
Lawmakers of both parties have asked him to reinstate it, but Quinn won't bend.
In addition to six adult transition centers with space for more than 1,000, Quinn's plan is to close a nearly new but underused supermaximum-security prison at Tamms and a women's lockup at Dwight, sacrificing nearly 2,000 more beds.
That's key because Corrections has said most transition-center residents would go home with electronic supervision, but AFSCME's Lindall reports that parole officers estimate only about half of them would qualify, meaning 500 or more would have to return to prison to compete for already-precious space that would shrink with more closures.
Solano said Corrections is counting on all but about 100 transition inmates going on electronic monitoring, with fewer squeezing back into prison, but higher caseloads for parole officers.
There are currently 24,800 parolees, according to Solano — 66 per agent. The total is down from an average of 30,600 in the 2010 fiscal year, a decrease AFSCME questions. If the number is correct, AFSCME says, average caseload is 77, based on the number of agents who have a regular caseload. But the union says the numbers are typically 90 in the Springfield district and 120 in Champaign.
Research has put the ideal at 35 or fewer. Closing the transition centers, where soon-to-be-released inmates can get schooling or drug-abuse treatment, would give parole agents more work in trying to link parolees on the streets with community services they need. Corrections promises they will, Solano said.