SPRINGFIELD — Hoping to bring some relief to Illinois’ overcrowded prison system, a House panel Monday endorsed a plan to retool an early inmate release program.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 7-1 in support of a proposal that would allow some non-violent offenders to leave prison without serving their entire sentences if they meet certain standards for good behavior.

The measure comes in response to Gov. Pat Quinn’s decision in 2009 to suspend an early release program after an Associated Press investigation showed that some potentially dangerous inmates were being freed within days of entering prison.

Since the program was shut down, the state’s prison population has jumped to more than 48,000, resulting in some inmates sleeping in bunks in gymnasiums because of a lack of cell space.

House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, said the legislation is needed to begin easing the space crunch within the prison system, which was built to house about 34,000 inmates.

“The fact that our numbers are so skewed puts us at risk of federal litigation and possibly having to do all kinds of emptying of our jail cells without taking into account things like good conduct or efforts to do a GED,” said Currie, who is sponsoring the legislation.

The John Howard Association, a Chicago-based prison watchdog organization, said Illinois is heading toward a situation similar to what happened in California, where a court ordered the state to release thousands of prisoners because of overcrowded conditions.

During tours at minimum-security lock-ups at Vandalia and Vienna, John Howard Association Executive Director John Maki said inmates were living in squalid conditions that included broken windows, mice and cockroaches.

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It was unclear Monday how many prisoners might qualify for reduced sentences if the measure becomes law. Under the proposal, inmates could receive credits for successfully completing a variety of programs, including substance abuse counseling, education and community service.

The measure, which was approved in the Senate earlier this month, now heads to the full House for further debate.

The legislation is Senate Bill 2621.

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