Too many people committing too many crimes is the real cause of overcrowded prisons.
With Illinois prisons bursting at the seams, legislators are on the brink of passing legislation aimed at allowing early release to nonviolent offenders who followed prison rules.
That's fine as far as it goes. The population of the state's prisons, designed to hold roughly 34,000 inmates, is approaching 50,000. Prison administrators do need the flexibility to reduce crowding problems.
But here's the rub. State officials have had this flexibility before and mishandled it to the point that public scandal ensued and governors and legislators felt compelled to suspend early release.
So what's going to be different this time? Maybe nothing.
This legislation, which already has passed the Senate and is on the verge of passing the House, is supported by a Who's Who of the good government crowd. Tellingly, however, the state's attorney's association is neutral on the subject, meaning even prosecutors understand that the status quo is unacceptable.
Under the legislation, prospects for early release will be selected from what are called well-behaved nonviolent offenders, presumably meaning those convicted of crimes involving property, not persons.
But that does not mean, however, that the nonviolent offenders who will be released are not a menace to society. Further, being the recipient of early release does not mean that the individual released won't immediately resume criminal behavior.
One past problem with early release programs was the public furor generated by inmates who were released early but then rearrested and resentenced to prison.
In addition to touting early release as a method of easing prison crowding, proponents have labeled it a money-saver. "For every 1,000 prisoners released, taxpayers will save $38 million," states a memo issued by the legislation's supporters.
That is a vast exaggeration. Indeed, the rationale for early release is riddled with exaggerations.
Here's the reality. Inmates released early will be replaced by new inmates recently sentenced. Some early-release inmates will be rearrested and reconvicted.
The train just keeps running and, as a result, prison administrators will feel pressure to be less discriminating about those who are released and more pressure to move bodies out of the system.
That's where the problem has occurred in the past. It was just a couple years ago that Gov. Pat Quinn and his prison chief were caught pushing bodies out the door under a meritorious good-time program involving inmates who were not in prison long enough to earn rewards for good behavior. Quinn implausibly denied knowledge of what was going on, but he fired the head of the corrections department to beat the political heat.
What happened then could easily happen again. That's why people need to be realistic about this renewed experiment in early release.
It might improve crowding problems at the margins. It might prove to be another law enforcement and political debacle.
It won't, by any stretch, solve the real problem.