SPRINGFIELD — State officials said Friday they are finally launching an early prisoner release program that could reduce some of the overcrowding within the prison system and, possibly, reduce some of the violence going on behind bars.

The first of 12 inmates who have been deemed eligible for the program could hit the streets in the coming month as the Illinois Department of Corrections reviews prisoner files to determine who might qualify.

“The new program will allow the department to, after comprehensive review, award up to 180 days of sentence credit to statutorily eligible offenders who demonstrate positive behavior in custody and show a potential for rehabilitation,” a Corrections release stated.

The program comes more than three years after Gov. Pat Quinn suspended an early release program after The Associated Press reported that an estimated 2,000 inmates had spent only days or weeks of their sentences in prison.

Since then, the state’s prison system has mushroomed by more than 3,000 inmates. At the same time, Quinn has moved to close prisons, saying the state cannot afford to keep all of the facilities open.

The combination of more inmates in fewer cells has led to inmates sleeping in gymnasiums and what critics say is a dangerous rise in violence. On Friday, Lawrence Correctional Center and Menard Correctional Center were on lockdown status, while Stateville Correctional Center was on partial lockdown.

John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association, said the program could help alleviate some of the pressure on the prison system by reducing the inmate population and giving prisoners an incentive to behave.

But, Maki said, the governor should abandon his plan to close Dwight Correctional Center because overcrowding remains a serious problem.

“Illinois is still going to have a very overcrowded prison system,” Maki said.

The system held 45,000 inmates in prisons designed for 33,000 inmates when the last early release program was terminated in 2009. Projections show the number of inmates is heading toward 50,000 in a system built for 32,000 if the governor moves forward with the closure of the all-female prison in Dwight.

Quinn already has shuttered the super-maximum-security prison in Tamms.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, which represents prison guards and other state workers, said the program could be a positive step.

“But by the department’s own admission in its latest inmate population projection for 2013, this is not an answer to the state’s huge overcrowding problem,” AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall said. “The overcrowding crisis and accompanying dangers will only get worse unless Gov. Quinn keeps Dwight open and reverses the closure of the four IDOC facilities he recently shuttered.”

Under the new program, offenders must have served at least 60 days within the state prison system to be eligible for credit. Inmate files will go through multiple levels of review before an award is determined, Corrections spokeswoman Stacey Solano said.

The program is aimed at nonviolent offenders. Credits cannot be awarded to inmates serving time for murder, rape, kidnapping and other serious crimes.

Officials also will have the right to revoke credit if an inmate demonstrates negative or violent behavior, which was not permitted under previous programs.

The department must notify local authorities at least two weeks prior to an inmate’s parole if the offender received supplemental sentence credit at any point during incarceration.

The agency said it will not inform those who call the agency whether an inmate will be eligible for credit.

But in an attempt to bring transparency to the process, the new law will require the department to provide annual reports outlining how many inmates received credits.