LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
With budget crises to solve, many states have decided that reducing their prison populations is a good way to save money. Illinois is one example. Under its new early release program, as many as 1,000 non-violent offenders will be able to finish their sentences at home or at other locations approved by prison officials.
NPR's Cheryl Corley has more.
CHERYL CORLEY: The lunchtime crowd had cleared out and it's gotten just a bit quieter at Nikarry's Restaurant, a Greek diner in Aurora, Illinois, west of Chicago. But waitress Savina Sauceda, coffee pot in hand, is still taking care of a few customers.
Ms. SAVINA SAUCEDA: Today's soup, cream of spinach, and then we have stuffed green peppers.
Unidentified Woman: That's a soup?
Ms. SAUCEDA: Yes. Take your time, okay?
CORLEY: Sauceda wears a pair of black pants and a black T-shirt with the restaurant's logo on the front, part of her required uniform. What's also required is the electronic detention monitoring device strapped around her ankle, courtesy of the Illinois Department of Corrections.
Ms. SAUCEDA: Nobody can see it. 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?
CORLEY: Sauceda is 24. She was convicted last year on charges of delivering a controlled substance: cocaine. When she was arrested, she was a nursing student and had never been in trouble before.
Ms. SAUCEDA: Not even a speeding ticket or a traffic ticket.
CORLEY: But she admits she made some bad decisions.
Ms. SAUCEDA: I was piled high in school debt and credit card debt. It was fast money. I started selling drugs. The rest is history from there.
CORLEY: Sauceda got a five-year prison sentence and time off for good behavior. In November, she was among some of the first inmates to win early release from prison under the new electronic monitoring program.
Technically, she's still an inmate, but Sauceda lives at home with her mother and brother. That's where she's required to stay unless a parole officer gives her permission to go elsewhere.
Assistant Corrections Director Deanne Benos says the department is working to identify other eligible low-risk offenders.
Ms. DEANNE BENOS (Assistant Corrections Director, Illinois): We've excluded everyone and anyone with a sex offense or a violent criminal history over a 10-year period. We've also done extensive checks on their prison performance and their behavior in our facilities before they could ever be released to this program. And finally, these are people that are coming home probably in a few months anyway.
CORLEY: Like many other states, Illinois' prison population has exploded, doubling since the 1980s to about 45,000 prisoners, fueled in part by tough drug laws. There's another 30,000-plus former inmates on parole. Those inmates and parolees cost Illinois taxpayers more than a billion dollars a year. Benos says Illinois will save $5 million by releasing some prisoners early with monitoring devices and offering supports like treatment programs.
Ms. BENOS: 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 and can be saved to be spent on education and health care and other priorities at a time that the state budget is in crisis.
CORLEY: Todd Haggerty, a policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, says corrections costs are typically a major component of state budgets. So, as burgeoning prison populations blow holes through those budgets, more states are looking to cut costs and change policies.
Mr. TODD HAGGERTY (Policy Analyst, National Conference of State Legislatures): California's one state that's looking at early release, Colorado - just to name a couple. But you're seeing a lot of states that are looking at low-risk, low-level, in some cases, drug offenders that are being either lower supervision or early release out of states.
CORLEY: In Illinois, not everyone is comfortable with the state's early release policy, like State Representative Jim Sacia, a former FBI agent.
State Representative JIM SACIA (Republican, Illinois): I just think that once a sentence is passed by a judge and/or a jury, that sentence should see itself through. But, again, I qualify everything in recognizing where the state is at financially, our overcrowding conditions � those things certainly come into play.
(Soundbite of beeping)
CORLEY: A security buzzer goes off as people enter the vestibule of a Department of Corrections re-entry center on Chicago's South Side. This is where former prisoners on parole go for drug testing and 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.
Mr. TOM HURLEY (Regional Manager, Chicago Department of Corrections): A little bit different population 'cause they're a different status in the department. But can we wrap some supervision and treatment around them to help them become more successful? That's the goal. I mean, the whole point of releasing them early is they should do better in the community than being locked up in a cell.
CORLEY: Back at Nikkary's restaurant, Savina Sauceda says she has a better sense of judgment now. She becomes a regular parolee in about a month, if all goes well, and the ankle monitoring bracelet will be removed.
Ms. SAUCEDA: I hope just to be successful in whatever I choose to do, whatever profession. Maybe not necessarily I'll be a nurse. Who knows? We'll see what happens. We'll see what road, you know, I get to go down. Hopefully, the right one again, right?
CORLEY: Illinois corrections officials say there's no rush to identify all 1,000 inmates eligible for early release. They say the department's scrutiny must be deliberate and sound.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News.