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Gov. Rauner Open To Changes So Disabled Prisoners Get Released On Time

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner said the Department of Corrections was following the law when it kept prisoners with disabilities in prison even after their release dates. But the governor has also indicated an openness to changing the law.

A WBEZ investigation found the Department of Corrections often struggles to house inmates leaving prison with disabilities. Instead of being released to halfway houses where they can serve out parole, or mandatory supervised release as it’s officially called, inmates with disabilities can end up spending extra time in prison.

“If these laws need to be changed, we’re open to having that conversation with the General Assembly as we continue to build on our efforts to reform the criminal justice system in Illinois,” Rauner said in a written statement.

The Illinois Department of Corrections admits it keeps inmates with disabilities locked up beyond their release dates, but the agency doesn’t know how often it happens and has refused months of requests to sit down for an interview with WBEZ that could shed light on the otherwise invisible problem — one that advocates say could be a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The governor would not comment on IDOC’s admission that it does not track how often someone's disability keeps them behind bars or IDOC’s refusal to grant an interview.  

“The governor should be all over this. Because the governor’s plan was to reduce the prison population during his time as governor,” Democratic state Rep. LaShawn Ford said. “To hold people in prison for nonviolent offenses is costing taxpayers a great deal. But to hold people past their release date is just penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections said the department would be willing to expand its efforts to house people leaving prisons with disabilities, but state lawmakers need to provide a budget to do that.

If that means disinvesting in some of the wasteful incarceration policies we’ve had over the years, then maybe that is what we need to do,” Democratic state Rep. Kelly Cassidy said.

"In these difficult financial times, we must prioritize our spending carefully. However, it would be my hope and contention that administrative bloat could be reduced in IDOC and our laws should be changed in such a way to provide a true safety net for individuals with severe disabilities returning to society from their time in prison. The status quo is simply unacceptable," Republican state Rep. Terri Bryant said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate JB Pritzker did not respond to a request for comment on the subject. But in her role as a state representative, his running mate state Rep. Juliana Stratton said the challenge of finding housing for people with disabilities was due, at least in part, to Gov. Rauner’s missteps on the state budget. She said the state needs to make sure housing for people with disabilities is properly funded.

Shannon Heffernan covers criminal justice for WBEZ. Follow her @shannon_h.

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