Republicans say it's a Democratic attempt to provide Quinn with political cover, arguing the governor already has the power to launch an early-release program because his administration runs the Illinois Department of Corrections. If lawmakers set up the guidelines, Quinn could blame them if a freed inmate went on a crime spree, Republicans said.
"If someone is released and they are causing a terrible crime which occurs, it's easy to blame the legislature," said Republican Rep. Jim Durkin, a former prosecutor from Western Springs. "To a certain extent, that could be viewed as passing the buck."
The Quinn administration is remaining mum on the bill, with a spokeswoman saying no other person than the governor will review it.
Perhaps Quinn is still haunted by an early-release program that turned into a public relations disaster and dominated much of the 2010 governor's race.
Quinn was in the midst of the Democratic primary campaign in late 2009 when he began suspending early-release programs after hundreds of inmates were released following only a few weeks in prison. The MGT Push program sped up the rate that inmates could get out with early good-time credit, and 1,745 inmates got out an average of 36 days early. While some of those released had violent records, a third were serving time on drug possession.
More than 50 convicts returned to prison after committing additional crimes or violating parole.
The issue became a flash point as Democratic foe Dan Hynes started a TV blitz highlighting early release that he used to erase a wide deficit in the polls. Quinn held on by a half-percentage point.
During the closing weeks of the fall general election campaign, a Quinn-appointed panel criticized the early-release program as "ill-conceived," finding that the administration had traded public safety for $3.4 million in savings. Quinn said he had been unaware of the program when it launched but acknowledged that "mistakes were made." The governor noted that his prisons chief, who left shortly after the scandal, also had made mistakes.
Republican challenger state Sen. Bill Brady also used the early-release issue to batter Quinn, who ended up winning by less than a percentage point.
Since the controversial early-release program was eliminated, Illinois' prison population has risen. In January 2010, there were 45,750 state inmates. That number topped 49,000 last October, and currently stands at 47,980. The system was built to hold an estimated 34,000 inmates.
Enter Democratic Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, who sponsored the early-release bill that the House narrowly approved. The measure would allow nonviolent inmates out early but would require them to spend at least 60 days in prison before that happened. Good-time credits would be limited to no more than 180 days. This type of good-time credit for early release would be tacked on top of the routine day-for-day time off a sentence that inmates generally get automatically.
"There is a problem with the kinds of conditions in which prisoners are kept," said Currie, the House majority leader from Chicago. She said inhumane conditions that come with overcrowding are not only a problem for prisoners, but they also raise the risk of a potential lawsuit like the one California faced. The U.S. Supreme Court ordered last year that California needed to reduce its prison population by tens of thousands of inmates.
It's hard to estimate how many inmates will be eligible for early release. Corrections officials will need to weigh a prisoner's criminal history and efforts to take advantage of prison programs to earn college credit, beat a drug habit and get career training.
Opponents of the legislation raised questions about which criminals would be eligible for early release. Durkin, the former Cook County prosecutor, said the list of crimes in the bill falls short, leaving open the possibility of a convicted sex abuser getting out early. Supporters countered the legislation gives enough discretion to prison officials that the concerns are unfounded.
The bill would let the corrections director look at a prisoner's violent history before authorizing early release, a departure from the former program that forbade looking at prior offenses, sponsor Sen. Kwame Raoul said.
The director can consider actions in prison "that are likely to give inmates the preparation to reintegrate into society at large as productive, law-abiding citizens," the Chicago Democrat said. "(It allows for) a more comprehensive evaluation of the individual."
"It's about not allowing fear to dictate how we approach criminal justice," Raoul said.
The early-release bill had an easier time passing the Senate. Even Sen. Brady, who blasted Quinn on early release during the governor's campaign, voted for it.
Brady later said his vote was a mistake, that he meant to vote "no" because he thinks the bill gives the prisons chief too much discretion and violates the spirit of truth-of-sentencing guidelines that require a prisoner to serve most of his sentence.
"I didn't see any merit in what they were expanding," Brady said. "It just doesn't smell right to me."