08/13/2010 03:06 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Prison Overcrowding: A Far Greater Threat to Public Safety than Early Release

At scheduled August hearings, House Republican Tom Cross and Senate Republican Christine Radogno's "Investigatory Committee on Early Release" wants to ask questions that have already been answered. What they should be asking is how taxpayers can afford a record high prison population and criminal justice policies that fail to increase public safety while Illinois faces a paralyzing budget deficit.

Illinois already spends more than $1.3 billion a year on its overcrowded prisons. In the past year, many states have decreased their prison populations through early release programs that save taxpayer money while protecting public safety.

In contrast, Illinois has added more than 2,000 inmates, the equivalent of a large prison. This increase brings the state's total population as of August 9 to 47,687, a record high.

It would be some comfort if this money increased public safety, but that's not the case. Almost 70 percent of all Illinois inmates are in prison for non-violent crimes and about 50 percent of all offenders serve six months or less.

Research shows that when low-level non-violent offenders are incarcerated instead of given supervised release, they are more likely to commit new crimes once they get out of prison.

This is not to say that early release programs eliminate the risk that inmates will re-offend. Illinois' recidivism rate is more than 50 percent, meaning some people released early will commit new crimes, just as will some who serve their full sentences.

The early release programs were designed as safe, cost-effective alternatives to incarcerating non-violent offenders with minimal time left on their prison sentences. However, the programs were terminated after becoming ensnared in election-year politics.

Rather than asking questions about the past, Illinois needs to focus on its future and enact correction policies to protect the public and cut the crippling costs of incarceration.