Illinois senators scrutinize prison cuts, funding to Ceasefire

April 18, 2012

An Illinois Senate Appropriations Committee questioned the closing of two state prisons and other program cuts proposed by the Illinois Department of Corrections at a time of prison overcrowding.

The IDOC is looking to reduce costs as its proposed $1.1 billion budget for fiscal year 2013 is $112 million less, or 9.2 percent, than this year.

IDOC director Salvador “Tony” Godinez defended the cuts given the department’s shrinking budget.

“Obviously, this budget request reflects the reality of the economic situation we’re facing here in the State of Illinois. This budget request contains many difficult choices that must be made given our overall fiscal climate,” Godinez said Tuesday. “There’s absolutely no area of area of our agency that is not going to be impacted.”

“Would it make more sense for taxpayers and those that are operating facility to have the facilities stay open and perhaps have a reduction of pay so that a larger number of people can keep their job?”
- State Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine

The IDOC, as directed by Gov. Pat Quinn, is looking to close by August two state prisons: the Tamms Super Max facility in southern Illinois and the Dwight Correctional Center in central Illinois.

Combined, closing the facility will save the department nearly $60 million but cause the layoff of 800 employees.

The IDOC is also proposing to eliminate six adult transition centers.

Some senators expressed concerned about the closing of Tamms, since it houses 181 of what the state considers its most dangerous inmates. 

State Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine, wondered if it would be better to reduce the pay of IDOC employees but keep the facilities running.

“Would it make more sense for taxpayers and those that are operating facility to have the facilities stay open and perhaps have a reduction of pay so that a larger number of people can keep their job?” Murphy asked. “I assume the 800 people would probably rather take a pay cut and stay rather than lose the job. And for the benefit of the taxpayer, keeping more facilities, since we do still have an overcrowding situation. ”

As IDOC considers the cuts, Murphy questioned the agency’s proposed spending of $4.4 million to fund Chicago’s Ceasefire program that aims to reduce violence in urban neighborhoods.

But Murphy and fellow State Sen. Donne Trotter (D-Chicago), also on the committee, questioned the effectiveness of Ceasefire. 

“Seeing homicides up 60 percent in [Chicago], it’s a reasonable conclusion that … the program needs to justify itself,” Murphy said.

Trotter said of the Ceasefire program, administered through the University of Illinois Chicago, “They have good P.R.”

Godinez said Ceasefire is a nationally-based program that’s well accepted across the nation.

“It services many communities in Illinois. Every corner of the state has Ceasefire programs in place,” Godinez said.

Murphy also wondered if Quinn will reinstitute the Meritorious Good Time (MGT) program that he suspended in 2009.

The program allowed some non-violent offenders to be released early from the sentence.

It was suspended by Quinn after questions arose on whether some prisoners were being given good time credit but not earning it.

Some see it as an effective way of reducing the state’s prison population and reducing costs.

Just last week, Quinn’s deputy chief of staff Toni Irving said lawmakers would have to adopt a new law to allow MGT since the old statute is outdated.

Godinez said Quinn has given tentative approval to allow electronic home monitoring of some non-violent offenders as a possible option to reduce prison overcrowding.

It was suspended from use around the same time Quinn suspended MGT.

The state’s prison population now stands at 48,000. They system is designed to handle 33,000 inmates.

The electronic detention system would allow up to 2,900 inmates to complete their sentences at home.

Godinez told the state senate committee that 1,200 non-violent inmates are now involved in adult transition centers, or ATC, and are put in contact with the public.

“They could be working, going to school, receiving treatment. If we find the best of that population and put them on electronic detention, those that are maybe even 90 days from release, they are already out there, they are actually going to be scrutinized more than if they were in the ATC,” Godinez said.

Meanwhile, Henry Bayer, executive director of AFSCME, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 31, testified before the committee that he sees the reduction of prison staff at a time when the inmate population continues to increase as “not good for our members, it’s not good for the inmates that reside there.”

“This is a bad, bad budget,” Bayer said. “This budget is not good for anybody.”

Bayer said under the proposed budget, there will be fewer staff to monitor those released on electronic monitoring. And he adds there are now fewer prison staff to monitor inmates, creating a potentially dangerous situation.

“We are increasing the risk of something terrible happening in our prisons when we have this many inmates, this few staff and so little programming for the inmates in our prisons,” Bayer said.