by Jamey Dunn
Instead of using what arguably was the biggest scandal during his time in office as a chance to reform a broken system, Gov. Pat Quinn stuck his head in the sand as Illinois’ prison population reached an all-time high.
An escalated version of the Meritorious Good Time early prisoner release program, dubbed MGT “Push,” became the subject of controversy in 2009 and a talking point for Republicans during the 2010 general election. The Associated Press uncovered an administrative tweak to the program that allowed prisoners to apply credit for good behavior to their sentences almost immediately. Previously, the Illinois Department of Corrections had required prisoners to wait 61 days before using any such credits. Under MGT Push, the waiting period was changed to 11 days. So, many of those sentenced to short terms were released before they moved on to the corrections system.
The state released 1,745 prisoners under MGT Push. On average, they served 36 fewer days than their sentences. The AP found that some inmates released under the plan had violent records. The DOC also failed to properly notify local law enforcement officials when prisoners were being released. In some cases, notification was not given at all. According to a report from Quinn’s office: “MGT Push resulted in the earlier release of hundreds of inmates, including more than 100 serving sentences for violent offenses, after as few as 11 days in DOC custody.” The revelation resulted in negative press for Quinn heading into his first bid to be elected governor.
So he did what any politician — and reasonable executive — would do in the same situation. He halted all early release programs and ordered a top to bottom review. Quinn brought in Judge David Erickson to work on a panel that took a look at the Meritorious Good Time program. Erickson concluded that the Quinn administration had taken a flawed program and made it worse. The report said that the focus of the program should be a rewards system meant to encourage good behavior and a desire for rehabilitation, not just a way to cut down on numbers. “The department must fundamentally change its attitude and approach toward MGT credit awards. Despite Illinois’ dire economic state and the very real need to maximize control of facilities, these programs should not simply be population pressure release valves; they must be, first and foremost, a means to incent and reward good conduct that shows a genuine rehabilitative intent. This will not only benefit the individual inmate but also the community he or she will reenter.”
At the time of the report, Quinn vowed to fix the program. “These problems at the Department of Corrections are systemic, they’re longstanding, there’s lots of flaws, they need to be corrected. And I’m going to do that,” Quinn said. But two years later, the DOC has no plans to start a new-and-improved Meritorious Good Time program in the foreseeable future. As a result, advocates say that overcrowding, especially at lower security prisons, is getting worse. According to a spokesperson for the DOC, the prison population has not substantially changed since it reached its peak of 48,743 in May 2011. An October quarterly report from the department projects that the population will reach 49,615 by September 2012.
Malcolm Young, who serves on an advisory board for DOC, says that after the MGT Push scandal, word from the Quinn administration was that there were plans to reform and relaunch the Meritorious Good Time Program, but he says "nothing materialized."
Young, who is also director of the Program for Prison Reentry Strategies with the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University School of Law, says: “The fact that it hasn’t been done yet, it’s actually kind of mind boggling.”
“When a window for reform opens, it can close very quickly,” says John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association, a Chicago-based prison watchdog group.
Maki says that in the wake of the MGT Push scandal, the idea of reinstating an early release program is a nonstarter with the Quinn administration. “It is dead,” he says. “It’s politically poisonous.” Maki and other advocates argue that the program has been in use in Illinois since the 1970s as a way to control prison populations as well as encourage good behavior from prisoners. “MGT was around for 30-plus years. It was something that administrations from both parties used. It was noncontroversial. … This is a standard practice in corrections.”
He says that overcrowding in Illinois prisons is by no means caused by the lack of an early release program for the last two years. He says the problem is a result of “decades of bad laws and policies” that will take a “multi-pronged solution” to tackle. However, he says that reinstating the Meritorious Good Time program could help to address serious problems at some of the state’s minimum- and medium-security lockups. “The minimum [security prisons] don’t tend to get a lot of press and don’t get a lot of attention.” But Maki says his group, which tours correctional facilities and issues reports on them, has found “inhumane” conditions at some of the lower security facilities. He says these offenders, who are often not locked up for violent crimes, would be the ideal candidates for early release based on good behavior.
He points to the association’s review of the Vandalia Correctional Center in 2011. The minimum-security prison was designed to hold 1,100 but instead holds 1,748. The state considers the prison to be at operational capacity. However, when association monitors visited the facility, inmates were housed in standing water in rain-flooded basements. The association’s report links the conditions directly to the state’s lack of a Meritorious Good Time program. “[John Howard Association monitors] found the conditions in these lower-level dormitory basements to be unsafe, unsanitary and unacceptable. The blame lies not with Vandalia’s administration, however, but with the Illinois governor and legislature, who created this deplorable situation. The suspension of Meritorious Good Time credit (MGT) in December 2010 by the Illinois governor has greatly exacerbated prison overcrowding — particularly in minimum- security facilities like Vandalia, whose low-level, non-violent offender populations are most affected by MGT’s suspension. Despite this crisis in overcrowding, the governor and legislature have refused to address the issue or take prudent action to replace MGT,” the report said.
“As a direct result of MGT’s suspension, Vandalia was forced to absorb more than 300 additional inmates into a facility already bursting at its seams with a population that far exceeds its design capacity. Consequently, the only place to house the additional inmates is in dormitory basements, which [monitors] found to be neither safe nor suitable as living quarters.”
Maki said that during a recent visit to the Vienna Correctional Center, another minimum-security prison, monitors found a similar situation, with inmates being housed in a lower level that had broken windows and was infested with cockroaches, birds and mice. According to the DOC, Vienna, which was designed to hold 925, has a population of 1,902. The state says that the prison has a so-called operational capacity of 1,887. As of press time, the John Howard Association had yet to release its report on the Vienna facility.
The state’s classification of operational capacity started popping up in reports last year. It is defined in DOC reports as “the maximum number of inmates a facility can hold.” The “design” or “rated” capacity of a facility is the capacity of the institution when it was built. The design capacity of the state corrections system is 33,703, but the operational capacity is 51,229. So according to the DOC, there’s room left.
“We’re not there yet,” says Sharyn Elman, a spokeswoman for DOC. “We’re still maintaining our numbers under that threshold.” Elman said Quinn’s administration knows there is work to be done. She says DOC is focusing on other tools, such as Adult Redeploy Illinois. That program is based on the successful juvenile model, which seeks to rehabilitate offenders through community programs, such as addiction counseling, instead of prison time.
However, Maki, Young and Erickson agree that good time credits can be used as a tool to reward positive behavior in prisoners and encourage them to work toward rehabilitation.
“Illinois is pretty much at a crisis in terms of overcrowding. I think that it’s not being acknowledged by the administration," Young says. While the state seems to have adopted a policy of denial when it comes to the problems in its corrections system, Illinoisans are also culpable. We cannot have unrealistic expectations of our state. We must demand that our government act in a competent, humane and open way. What we cannot demand is that it protects us from every evil that could potentially befall us. But few of us want to live in a society that locks up all criminals and throws away the key. And even if we do, we simply cannot afford it unless we want to fund nothing but prison costs.
Unfortunately, this forces us to confront inherent risks of our society. Some criminals will reform, and some will reoffend. Focused screening and requirements for early release, which exclude violent offenders from eligibility, and programs that can help inmates make the difficult transition back into society can improve the odds. But we have to accept that some people who get out will offend again and sometimes even violently.
Maki says that public backlash over scandals in the criminal justice system stem from the basic human desire of all individuals “wanting to protect themselves, their families and their loved ones.” However, he says that instead of being reactionary, we must look to what works. “Incarcerating this many people does not keep you safe,’’ because prisoners at present lack access to rehabilitation programs.
While half-baked plans such as MGT Push, which was carried out sloppily and without public notifications, spur righteous outrage, such high profile scandals should not bar the way for effective policies geared toward real goals: encouraging rehabilitation, improving prison conditions and spending less money on incarceration. It seems the Meritorious Good Time program needs some work, as well as some changes to the law, to become focused on such goals. But having survived the scandal of MGT Push, Quinn could be just the guy to get the ball rolling.
Illinois Issues, January 2012