(WGN-AM)- Gov. Pat Quinn tried today to temper growing concerns over his plans to release low-level inmates so he can lay off 1,000 prison workers, saying he wants to "carefully examine" the idea but has made "no final decisions."

Prison union leaders say as many as 11,000 of Illinois' 45,500 or so inmates could be eligible for release. Quinn administration officials said they are still compiling a list but are focusing on inmates charged primarily with drug crimes who are in the last year of their sentences.

State law, however, allows for a much broader range of prisoners to be released, including those who were convicted of various property crimes. Prisoners 55 or older who have served at least a quarter of their sentence are eligible to be placed on electric home monitoring for the last year of their sentence as long as they were not convicted of a sex crime.

Those convicted of first-degree murder, sexual assault, drug conspiracy or bringing guns or explosives into a prison would not qualify for early release.

Quinn's plan is a sign the state budget battle has engulfed the penal system. Prison officials said they have already identified more than 500 positions for elimination at six Downstate prisons by the end of September.

"We're not only downsizing employees, we're downsizing inmates," said Illinois Department of Corrections spokesman Derek Schnapp.

The moves are aimed at saving the state $125 million as Quinn works to close a budget gap his office estimates at $9.2 billion. It costs the state an average of $23,000 a year to house each prisoner.

Anders Lindall, a spokesman for the union representing prison guards and parole agents, said Quinn's plan is "reckless" and undermines public safety because prisons would be understaffed. It's also unclear how the state's 400 parole officers would deal with the large influx of cases.

"There is clearly a more appropriate approach to look at sentencing guidelines and prison rehabilitation programs if that's what the governor wants to do," Lindall said. "But don't do it under the budgetary gun as a cost-savings measure. It's not thoughtful and may increase risks both within state prisons and Illinois communities."

Quinn noted that other large states have instituted similar programs, and he emphasized that strict conditions would be rigorously applied "if we go forward."

Some lawmakers say it's just the latest in a series of Quinn's empty threats as he tries to persuade lawmakers to go along with an income-tax increase.

"We have some counties where the largest employer is the prison, and that's going to weigh heavily on legislators when they consider whether to support an income-tax increase," said Rep. Jim Durkin (R- Western Springs), a former Cook County prosecutor. "I don't think these convicted felons, a good portion of them street gang members, should be receiving the benefits of a budget meltdown. We should not be rewarding bad behavior as a way to convince legislators to vote for a tax increase. I find it a little bit disturbing."

A Quinn spokesman said the layoffs will happen even if Quinn wins a tax increase, though Quinn has backed off of other threats in recent weeks. He has previously said he would cut grants to social service agencies by 50 percent and would move ahead with $1 billion in state spending cuts, only to back off and instead veto portions of the budget.

(The Chicago Tribune contributed to this story)

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