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Thursday, June 14, 2012 01:10 pm

Early release worries understaffed parole agents

Caseload of ex-offenders already high, due to rise

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As Gov. Pat Quinn mulls a bill to allow early release for inmates in state prisons, parole agents who monitor ex-offenders say the program would add to their already burdensome caseload.

In late March, the Illinois General Assembly passed a bill allowing the director of the Illinois Department of Corrections to award inmates credits toward their prison sentences. Quinn previously suspended early release in late 2009 citing public safety concerns, and lawmakers responded with a measure to build more safeguards and flexibility into the program.

But some parole agents worry that letting more inmates out of prison will endanger public safety because there aren’t enough agents to adequately monitor even the existing parolees. An IDOC report from 2010 showed there were about 28,000 parolees that year and a ratio of one agent for every 80.4 parolees. That works out to about 349 parole agents statewide.  IDOC’s website currently says there are about 26,000 parolees.

Calls to IDOC seeking comment were not immediately returned.

James Simmons, a parole agent in Chicago, says agents act as both law enforcement and counselors, providing accountability and guidance for ex-offenders. Without that influence and help, parolees are more likely to commit further crimes, he says.

“If we don’t see these people, they go unchecked,” Simmons says. “It can be a nightmare. It’s difficult for them to find jobs, so they revert back to what they know best: drug dealing, hustling, the criminal way of life.”

The 2010 IDOC report shows 8.6 percent of inmates admitted to prison that year were former inmates who went back to prison for committing new crimes, while 29 percent were inmates who violated the terms of their parole.

Simmons says some parole agents are working without vehicles, instead relying on rides from other parole agents to check up on their assigned parolees. He says the Illinois State Police have started allowing parole agents to use their vehicles as a short-term solution.

The concern comes at a time when Illinois is slashing budgets for agencies across the board. Quinn asked each agency to reduce spending for the coming fiscal year that starts July 1, and IDOC responded by asking for $26 million less in funds for parolee monitoring, among other cuts.

IDOC is working to implement electronic monitoring for offenders who committed less serious crimes, reducing the responsibilities of parole agents, who currently must check on parolees at intervals ranging from twice a month to once every six months. But IDOC has also increased the number of compliance checks parole agents must perform.

Gerald Raines, acting president and vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police Corrections Lodge 263 in Joliet, says parole agents are already understaffed and overworked. If Quinn signs the early release bill, that situation will only worsen, he says.

“The caseload would be so overwhelming that they wouldn’t be able to cover them all,” Raines says.

He would like to see an additional 50 parole officers hired statewide. He says many additional agents would be needed in the Chicago area, where the majority of the state’s parolees are concentrated.

Simmons estimates that reinstating early release would result in between 2,500 and 3,000 more parolees annually. While Simmons acknowledges that Illinois prisons hold far more inmates than their design capacity, he says that’s better than simply freeing inmates without enough manpower to monitor them.

“They (IDOC) would rather sacrifice public safety than double bunk somebody in a prison,” Simmons says, pointing to a handful of cases in which parolees released early from prison have gone on to commit murders or other serious crimes. “We’re not going to be able to protect the public. Just one life lost is too many.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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