CHICAGO (AP) – Illinois’ prison chief, who became a political liability to Gov. Pat Quinn during an election year because of a secret prisoner release program he oversaw, is stepping down, the governor said Thursday.

Corrections Director Michael Randle is resigning as of Sept. 17 to pursue a new opportunity and his replacement will be named soon, Quinn said.

Randle’s departure comes after a review last month of the early release program that found the corrections department didn’t consider possible dangers to the public when it tried to save money by letting prisoners out early, including some who were violent.

Quinn canceled MGT Push – named for the “meritorious good time” that was granted to prisoners – after The Associated Press revealed the program’s existence last fall. By then, some 1,700 inmates had been granted early release, including hundreds of prisoners with records of violence.

Quinn, a Democrat who’s is running for his first full term as governor, heaped most of the blame on Randle, and Randle said Quinn had ordered that violent offenders not be part of the program.

“I appreciate Director Randle’s dedicated service to the state of Illinois during these challenging times,” Quinn said in a statement. Randle was appointed corrections chief in May 2009.

Randle’s office declined an interview request. The Chicago Tribune was the first to report his pending departure.

Randle is leaving amid calls for his ouster by Quinn’s Republican opponent in the governor’s race, state Sen. Bill Brady, of Bloomington. Quinn has repeatedly said he would not fire Randle, although he acknowledged he considered it.

“Michael Randle should have been fired long ago. Allowing the top official responsible for one of Illinois’ worst public safety failures to simply depart state government without reprimand shows the Quinn Administration to be a nothing but a revolving door of reckless ineptitude,” Brady spokeswoman Patty Schuh said in a statement.

The controversy over the early release program was a major issue in the February Democratic primary for governor that Quinn only narrowly won over state Comptroller Dan Hynes.

Under the early release program, inmates were given time off as soon as they walked through the prison doors. The Corrections Department dropped its policy of requiring prisoners to serve at least 61 days before getting any time off for good behavior.

The change meant some inmates were released after serving just a few days behind bars.

After taking office, Quinn directed Randle to examine prisoner treatment at Illinois’ only supermax prison, the Tamms Correctional Center, which is reserved for the worst-behaved convicts and known for confining inmates to their cells for 23 hours per day.

Critics have argued since it opened in 1998 that it warehouses mentally ill inmates and isolates others so long they develop psychological issues. Amnesty International contends that Tamms “may breach international standards for humane treatment,” giving the inmates little chance of being transferred out.

With Quinn’s blessing, Randle announced reforms last year that included telling all prisoners their approximate length of stay and giving them a transfer review hearing.

Randle since has said dozens of the inmates were deemed fit for transfer to lower-security prisons.

Associated Press Writer Jim Suhr contributed to this report from St. Louis.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.