Letting prison inmates leave early is easy. What's hard is preventing their return.
Diminished state resources are forcing state officials to make decisions they would prefer to avoid.
Nowhere is that more obvious than in the decision by Illinois lawmakers to pass legislation authorizing the early release of inmates from state prisons.
It was just two years ago that an early release was so badly mishandled that it led to a statewide scandal that jeopardized Gov. Pat Quinn's re-election campaign.
Now, because state prisons are holding far more than inmates (roughly 50,000) than they were designed to accommodate (34,000), a bill for another early release program has been approved and is now on Quinn's desk awaiting his signature.
He won't be holding any triumphant news conference celebrating this bill. Quinn knows he's playing with political fire when it comes to early release because similar programs have failed in the past.
Here are a couple of statistics that illustrate the problem.
Early release advocates go to extremes to ease public concerns about letting inmates out early, insisting that the inmates are carefully screened before being let out. They point out that, under the pending proposal, all the inmates released early are nonviolent offenders who have demonstrated they are trustworthy by behaving themselves in prison and enrolling in activities designed to correct their bad behavior.
But sometimes that kind of screening is not enough.
A 2010 study prepared by the Illinois Department of Corrections indicates that 8.6 percent of the inmates sentenced to prison that year were former inmates who committed new crimes. Another 29 percent of new inmates were former inmates who were released on parole but violated the terms of their parole.
That means nearly 40 percent of the new inmates sentenced to prison were former inmates. In other words, it's a revolving door that would appear to be at least partly beyond the reach of even the most careful pre-release screening regimen.
That's not to suggest that the state's pending early release program isn't necessary under the current circumstances. But the numbers do suggest that early release is no silver bullet, and that no one should be shocked when and if early release inmates are rearrested and reincarcerated.
One more thing — don't count on parole officers being able to keep their eyes on parolees. The same 2010 report indicated there were 28,000 parolees that year, with one parole agent assigned to every 80.4 parolees.
Too much of one and not enough of the other is a recipe for trouble, no matter how reassuring Quinn will be when he signs the early release bill into law.