MADISON - The first group of Wisconsin inmates left prison Tuesday under a state plan to relieve overcrowding by releasing some prisoners early, corrections officials said.

The Department of Corrections has spent the past three months reviewing hundreds of nonviolent offenders eligible for early parole in exchange for good behavior. Twenty-one were released Tuesday, agency spokesman John Dipko said. More could be released later this week if housing and other arrangements are set, he said.

The parolees came from across the state correctional system's institutions. Their crimes include retail theft, driving while intoxicated, operating a vehicle without consent, forgery, burglary, drug possession and disorderly conduct, Dipko said in an e-mail.

States around the country have turned to early release programs to alleviate overcrowding. Last year 13 states, including California, Colorado, Maryland and New York, either created or expanded programs to speed up early release, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Critics say the programs could put the public in danger.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn suspended that state's early out program in December after The Associated Press revealed the Illinois Department of Corrections was releasing hundreds of inmates too early. The agency had secretly changed a policy that required everyone to spend at least 61 days in prison and was awarding six months' good-conduct credit as soon as inmates entered prison.

Several of Illinois' parolees were arrested within weeks of their release for various offenses.

"This is a dangerous social experiment doomed to failure," Rep. Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, said of Wisconsin's programs. "These felons are headed back to a community near you."

Dipko stressed offenders must earn the release with good behavior.

"Earned release provides a positive incentive that we know from research can reduce recidivism," he said.

Prisons are a big business in Wisconsin. The correctional system includes more than 18 institutions and costs more than $1 billion per year.

Overcrowding has been a problem for years. Corrections Secretary Rick Raemisch estimated in February that the inmate population stood at more than 22,000. A consultant's report released last year found Wisconsin's facilities are decaying. It recommended more than $1.2 billion in upgrades over the next 10 years, including adding nearly 9,000 beds.

Faced with a $6.6 billion shortfall in the state budget, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle instead proposed releasing some prisoners early to save money and space.

Killers and sex offenders aren't eligible, but most offenders will be able to shave days off their sentences with good behavior. Convicts including drug dealers and bank robbers can seek early release from the Department of Corrections, a judge or a newly created parole commission.

Inmates with "extraordinary health conditions," defined as advanced age, infirmity, disability or a need for medical treatment not available behind bars, also can petition the commission for early parole.

Raemisch estimated in February the changes might affect 3,000 inmates. The Corrections Department estimates the early release programs will save about $30 million over the two-year state budget.

Corrections has been working since October on early release reviews for about 900 nonviolent offenders.

Paula Harris became the first inmate granted early release on Dec. 15, Dipko said. The 45-year-old Milwaukee woman was sentenced in 2006 to 18 years in prison for first-degree reckless homicide while armed. She qualified for early release under the health condition provisions.

Dipko declined to comment on Harris' medical condition, saying only that it met the release criteria.

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