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SPRINGFIELD — A prison watchdog group says Illinois' next governor must have a plan to reduce the state's prison population.

In a recently released report, the Chicago-based John Howard Association said the state could reduce crowding in the prison system and save millions of dollars if alternative programs were put in place for low-risk criminals.

"The only way for Illinois to get a handle on its prison system is to safely reduce its over-reliance on incarceration," the report states.

According to the most recent Illinois Department of Corrections report, the state's prisons held 48,902 inmates as of Aug. 31 in facilities built to hold 32,000 prisoners. Projections issued by the department show the population will top 49,100 by September 2015.

Illinois' prison system is among the largest and most expensive agencies in state government with a budget of more than $1.3 billion.

The report comes as Gov. Pat Quinn and his Republican challenger, businessman Bruce Rauner, discussed the issue of prisons during a debate in Peoria on Thursday.

Rauner said Illinois needs to rethink how it deals with criminals.

"We don't think outside the box. We've got to change our system," said Rauner, a political newcomer from Winnetka.

Although he was short on specifics, Rauner suggested the state could lower the prison population by sending fewer low-risk criminals into the system.

"We need to reform our corrections system in Illinois," Rauner said. "We have a tragic situation in Illinois. We have unsafe prisons."

Rauner also said officials need to invest more in programs that divert people away from being sent to Department of Corrections facilities.

In response, Quinn said the state has implemented programs designed to lower the number of people going to and returning to prison.

"We've reduced the numbers of repeat offenders," Quinn said. "We invest in the front end, trying to keep people out of our prisons."

In addition, Quinn said he has signed legislation giving employers incentives to hire ex-offenders. And Quinn has overseen the closure of juvenile facilities because of a reduction in the number of youth being sentenced to prison.

The John Howard Association credits state lawmakers, Quinn and others for successfully pushing through rules and regulations that provide alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders.

"Indeed, the state has recently taken some concrete steps in the right direction," the report states.

As an example of how changes could lower the number of inmates, the organization found Illinois had 7,284 people convicted of marijuana-related drug offenses in prison on June 30, 2012.

"Assuming that all of the prisoners were in custody for that full fiscal year, they would necessitate at least $157,334,400 in prison spending," the report stated.

Instead of putting those inmates behind bars, the organization said non-prison sanctions could be used to punish people.

John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association, said he was pleased both candidates acknowledged Illinois needs to address its prison problems.

"I think what was really encouraging is that both candidates recognize we have a problem," Maki said Friday.

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