A judge has criticized Illinois' prison officials (and by extension, the Quinn administration) for poor oversight of the state's early release programs. Now is the time to reform them.
If Gov. Pat Quinn loses the governor's race in November, pundits will definitely point to the problems underpinning his administration's MGT Push early release program as one major cause.
If you're just getting caught up on the controversy, here's a little background. For decades, governors and prison directors in Illinois have utilized a program known as "Meritorious Good Time (MGT)," which allows prison officials to award up to 180 days of good conduct credit to inmates "for meritorious service in specific instances as the Director deems proper." That means that incarcerated individuals who behave well while behind bars can have his or her sentence shortened. Before 2009, the Illinois Department of Corrections (DOC) followed an unwritten policy requiring that inmates must serve at least 61 days before any credits could be awarded. (Those 61 days did not typically include time spent at a local jail while the prisoner was awaiting trial and sentencing.)
Last year, officials in the Quinn administration launched MGT Push, an accelerated program in which hundreds of inmates were given the good-conduct credit immediately upon entering prison, before they had a chance to exhibit solid behavior. An AP report last fall found that some of the inmates let out of prison early thanks to MGT Push had violent records and committed additional violent crimes after being let out. In all, the state released 1,745 inmates out of prison before the Quinn administration halted the initiative last winter. The inmates served an average of 36 days less than was required by a judge or jury.
On Friday, Former Judge David Erickson released a report (PDF) -- months later than originally planned -- panning DOC's oversight of its meritorious good time program. Calling MGT Push a "mistake" that presented "dangers to the public safety," Erickson broadened his critique beyond Quinn's budget-trimming effort, noting that good-time credit had been awarded to inmates for years without prison officials making "any attempt to gauge individual inmates’ in-prison conduct in a meaningful way." Record-keeping was shoddy and the department failed to notify local jurisdictions adequately of impending releases. All in all, it's safe to say that the initiatives were poorly run.
Quinn has long contended that he was unaware DOC Director Michael Randle had implemented MGT Push before the AP report was released. Even so, he's standing by his man atop the prison bureaucracy. On Sunday, GOP gubernatorial nominee State Sen. Bill Brady jumped all over Quinn, calling for Randle's ousting. It's a smart political play. In February, the controversy nearly sank Quinn's primary campaign by playing into the meme that the governor is, in the words of former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, a "totally and completely undisciplined individual."
Because of the controversy's impact on the state's political horserace, however, there's a risk that lawmakers and voters will overlook the substance of Erickson's report, which itself is extremely valuable. The judge laid out a series of recommendations the DOC should implement to "fundamentally change its attitude and approach toward MGT Credit awards." Here's how a press release summarized those findings last week:
The report recommends a number of measures to enhance the accountability and transparency of both the program and individual meritorious credit awards. The committee calls on the Director to formally delegate authority over earned “good time” programs to the Department’s Chief Public Safety Officer. Program policies and procedures instituted under the Chief Public Safety Officer’s direction should be set forth in formal, written rules, directives, and manuals and should be developed with both notice to and input from community stakeholders.
Communication. The report found that the Department failed to notify local authorities of pending prisoner releases in a uniform and timely manner. In December 2009, Governor Quinn ordered the Department of Corrections to provide local prosecutors with at least 14 days’ advance notice before releasing an inmate with meritorious credit into mandatory supervision. Governor Quinn sought legislation to make this change permanent; this policy was made law when Governor Quinn signed Senate Bill 1013 in January 2010.
In addition to these reforms, the committee recommends that the Department institute a fully electronic advance notification process with appropriate procedural safeguards, to give local authorities time to respond to or prepare for a prisoner’s release. Additionally, updated electronic information-sharing between local authorities, the Illinois State Police, and the Department of Corrections would improve internal decisions on awarding good-conduct credit, expand communication with victims, and alert jail and prison authorities to potential inmate risks.
Getting good time release right is crucial. Over 46,000 inmates are incarcerated or monitored by Illinois' DOC, a population which has almost tripled since 1978, when the initial version of the MGT program was created. Providing incentives for well-behaving inmates to return home early (often under state supervision) is both humane and a cost-effective way to lower the state's unsustainable crime rate and prison budget. But the program won't work unless the public trusts that the state is taking proper caution when it awards the credits.
An effective early release program should also be paired with larger comprehensive reforms, like better criteria for evaluating offenders and substantive sentencing and anti-recidivism reforms (including reductions in mandatory minimum sentences). Overcrowding and recidivism are equally serious public policy problems that deserve comparable attention. (In April, the joint legislative hearing held in Chicago by four Illinois House members was a good start.)
Every year, Illinois releases roughly 32,000 people from prison early. Within three years, 17,000 of those offenders are back behind bars. In our criminal justice system, there's no such thing as a risk-free release from prison. The state shouldn't let this latest controversy fall out of the headlines before some deeper structural questions about incarceration and crime are also debated.