With a sputtering economy and widespread budget crises, many states have decided that reducing their prison populations is a good way to save money.
Illinois is one of the latest examples. Under its new early release program, as many as 1,000 nonviolent offenders will be able to finish their sentences at home or at other locations approved by prison officials.
A Second Chance
Savina Sauceda, 24, is one of the first inmates to be released under the new program.
She works at Nikarry's restaurant, a Greek diner in Aurora, Ill., west of Chicago. The lunchtime crowd has cleared out, but Sauceda, coffeepot in hand, is still taking care of a few customers.
Illinois Prisons By The Numbers*
The average cost of maintaining one prisoner for one year in an Illinois state prison.
State of Illinois corrections budget.
Percent over maximum capacity of the Illinois state prison system.
*Fiscal year 2008
Sources: Illinois Department of Corrections, Taxpayer Action Board; U.S. Department of Justice
She wears black pants and a black T-shirt with the restaurant's logo on the front — part of her required uniform. She is also required to wear an electronic monitoring device strapped around her ankle, courtesy of the Illinois Department of Corrections.
"Nobody can see it," she says. "It's not like I wear it around my neck. It's not something I'm ashamed of, but it's not something I'm going to show off, you know?"
Sauceda was convicted last year on charges of delivering a controlled substance — cocaine. At the time of her arrest, she was a nursing student and had never been in trouble before — not even a speeding ticket, she says.
But she admits she made some bad decisions.
"I was piled high in school debt and credit card debt," she says. "It was fast money. I started selling drugs. ... The rest is history from there."
Sauceda got a five-year prison sentence and time off for good behavior. In November she was among the first inmates to win early release under the new electronic monitoring program.
Technically, she's still an inmate, but Sauceda lives at home with her mother and a brother. That's where she is required to stay unless a parole officer gives her permission to go elsewhere.
Illinois Assistant Corrections Director Deanne Benos says the department is working to identify other eligible low-risk offenders.
"We've excluded everyone or anyone with a sex offense or a violent criminal history over a 10-year period," Benos says. "We've also done extensive checks on their behavior in our facilities before they could ever be released on this program. "
Like many other states, the Illinois prison population has exploded, doubling since the 1980s to about 45,000, fueled in part by tough drug laws. In addition, more than 30,000 former inmates are currently on parole. Those inmates and parolees cost Illinois taxpayers more than $1 billion per year.
Benos says Illinois will save $5 million by releasing some prisoners early. The inmates will be equipped with monitoring devices and offered support in the form of treatment programs.
"It's better for public safety in the long term, it's better for the safety of our facilities, and it's better for the taxpayer because less money will have to be spent on these individuals," Benos says.
Todd Haggerty, a policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, says corrections costs are typically a major part of state budgets. As burgeoning prison populations blow holes through those budgets, more states, including California and Colorado, are looking to cut costs and change policies.
Treatment And Training
In Illlinois, not everyone is comfortable with the state's early release program. State Rep. Jim Sacia, a former FBI agent, is one of the policy's critics.
"I just think once a sentence is passed by a judge or jury, that sentence should see itself through, but I qualify everything in recognizing where the state is at financially, " Sacia says. "The overcrowding conditions — those things certainly come into play."
Treatment and training, through programs like those already offered at the Department of Corrections re-entry center on Chicago's South Side, are an important component of early release plans. The center is where former prisoners on parole go for drug testing, and to take part in an array of programs to help them find jobs, manage anger and treat substance abuse.
Regional manager Tom Hurley says the center's services may also support the inmates being released on electronic monitoring under the new plan. With more supervision and treatment on the outside, Hurley says, he hopes they'll be more successful once their sentences have been served.
"That's the goal," Hurley says. "The whole point of releasing them early is that they should do better in the community than being locked up in a cell."
'We'll See What Happens'
Back at the Nikkary's restaurant, Savina Sauceda says she has a better sense of judgment now. If all goes well, she'll become a regular parolee in about a month, and the ankle monitoring bracelet will be removed.
"I hope just to be successful in whatever I choose to do, whatever profession," Sauceda says. "We'll see what happens. We'll see what road I get to go down. Hopefully, the right one again, right?"