It's hard to imagine how Illinois' budget picture could be worse.
With the state of Illinois deeply in debt, state legislators have no choice but to make tough spending cuts as they prepare the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
That's why the very idea of addressing budget woes prompts many of them to run screaming from the room. But, to borrow a phrase heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis once uttered of fleet-footed opponent Bill Conn, they can run but they can't hide — at least not anymore.
The budget choices state legislators face are especially bad because for most of the last 10 years they've refused to recognize financial realities, repeatedly spending money they didn't have and creating new programs Illinois could not afford.
Now with the state effectively bankrupt, legislators can't avoid making big budget cuts in Medicaid and restructuring public pension programs. Those two dilemmas have received the lion's share of attention from the news media. But another part of the state's budget — prisons — poses similar challenges, and how it's addressed will have a direct impact on public safety.
Illinois prisons are dramatically overcrowded, with more than 48,000 inmates in space designed for 33,000. On its face, most people would conclude that Illinois needs more space, not less. But Quinn has called for closing 14 state juvenile facilities, adult transition centers that help inmates move from captivity to freedom and Tamms, the super-max in southern Illinois where the most violent inmates are held.
It's unclear at this point what legislators will decide, but it seems clear that some facilities will be closed. That possibility has inmate advocates calling for the state to start releasing many inmates before they've completed their sentences.
Inmate advocates insist they're referring only to releases of low-level, nonviolent inmates. But we've seen this movie before — the bottom line is that prison administrators working early release get caught up in moving inmates out the door and inevitably stop paying close attention to why they were locked up in the first place.
Shortly after he took office in 2009, Gov. Quinn presided over an early release program in which inmates, some of whom had committed violent crimes, were released within days of being imprisoned.
It was called the "MGT Push" program — meritorious good time. Six-month sentence reductions for good behavior have been around for decades. But prison bosses — Quinn insisted he knew nothing about it, although the record contradicted his claim — started handing out unearned meritorious good time sentence reductions to new inmates and letting them go. Naturally, some were re-arrested for other crimes. State officials tried to cover it up. But once the public became aware of what was going on, Quinn fired his corrections department director and canceled the early release program. Now he says he won't reinstate it, although a Quinn spokesman has expressed interest in details of how a new plan would operate.
Then there is the Tamms issue. The prison costs $26 million a year to run while holding half its capacity of 700 inmates. But Tamms inmates are considered the most violent of inmates, a threat to fellow inmates and prison employees. They are held mostly in isolation at Tamms, a status that diminishes the threat they pose and serves as an incentive for good behavior to inmates in other facilities.
Closing Tamms would require transferring the inmates there elsewhere, ratcheting up the danger level wherever they are moved. Some may consider closing Tamms to be an issue of dollars and cents, but there will be serious consequences if it is closed.
It's pretty obvious there are no good options here, and that's the way it is all across the state budget. There are bad and worse, and there's no place to hide.