By Jamey Dunn
UPDATE: Gov Pat Quinn said on October 2 that the soonest the early release program would go into effect would be sometime after the end of this year. The Department of Corrections plans to have rules drafted for the program before the end of October.
Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill that will allow Illinois prisoners to earn time off their sentences for good behavior. While Quinn says he is satisfied that the new law contains necessary reforms, some are concerned that the state lacks the manpower to monitor prisoners once they are let out.
“Ensuring public safety is my top priority,” Quinn said in a written statement. “This is good criminal justice policy and good public safety policy that will manage our prison population and make non-violent offenders less likely to commit crime in the future.”
Quinn had suspended the Meritorious Good Time program after the Associated Press revealed that inmates, some of them violent offenders, were being released under the program after serving only a few weeks of their sentences.
The Department of Corrections had instated a policy dubbed MGT Push, which waived the a longstanding waiting period and allowed inmates to apply their credit immediately. This decision was made behind closed doors and was not publicized. The fallout from the MGT Push program was a scandal for Quinn as he was running for the governor’s office in 2010.
Quinn pulled together a group of staff members and experts who released a report in 2010 suggesting reforms that should take place before early release was reinstated. However, Quinn dropped the issue, and the program remained suspended for years while the state’s prisons faced overcrowding.
Advocates said that the suspension of an early release program was particularly hard on lower security prisons, where inmates that would likely be eligible for early release are housed. The John Howard Association, a Chicago-based prison watchdog group, found prisoners housed in a flooded basement in one of the state’s minimum-security prisons and housed in rooms with broken windows that let in birds, roaches mice and other pests at another minimum security facility. (For more on this, see Illinois Issues January 2012.)
“As of May 2012, Illinois housed more than 48,000 inmates in a prison system designed for about 34,000. While almost every facility struggles with its population, the worst crowding is in the state's minimum and medium security prisons, which house mostly low-level offenders. This kind of crowding endangers not only inmates, but also the thousands of staff that work in the state's correctional institutions,” said a written statement from the John Howard Association. The group called Quinn signing Senate Bill 2621 a “significant victory” that will help address the overcrowding at Illinois prisons and help to incentivize good behavior and participation in programs that reduce recidivism. “Every facility I’ve gone to, there’s been some staff member or administrator talking about not having this ability,” said John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association.
The law places new restrictions on who can get credit for good behavior. It allows the DOC to consider an inmate’s entire criminal history and not just the crime he or she is currently serving time for committing —which is a change from the previous MGT program. Credit will be earned with good behavior as well as participation in programs, such as GED courses or life-skills classes, both in county jail and state prison. DOC will be required to report on the program both to the public and the legislature. Offenders must serve at least 60 days of their sentences in state custody before being awarded “sentence credit” and the maximum amount of time an inmate will be able to shave off of his or her sentence is 180 days.
“We were very mindful of the criticism that came out of the Meritorious Good Time Push fallout. There’s some pretty significant transparency built into this law,” said Maki, whose group worked with lawmakers on the legislation.
“This sentence credit law increases accountability in the state’s prison system by setting new guidelines in place that further strengthen the department’s ability to manage the state’s prison population. This law gives the department the discretion necessary to ensure that sentence credit is responsibly awarded only to eligible non-violent inmates who demonstrate positive behavior while incarcerated. This law gives [the] DOC the important discretion that it did not have before and, in turn, creates a secure system to incentivize good behavior,” Stacey Solano, a spokeswoman for the DOC, said in a written statement.
Solano said the DOC does not yet have a timeline in place for when the program will be up and running. The department still needs to adopt rules and prepare for the changes in the law.
However, some are concerned that the DOC is understaffed and will not have enough parole officers to monitor those who are eventually released under the new law. “If they don’t hire more parole officers, there’s no way they could keep up with this,” said Gerald Raines, acting president of the Fraternal Order of Police Illinois Department of Corrections Lodge #263 based in Joliet.
Raines said that parole officers are already spread too thin and lack the equipment they need to monitor all the parolees assigned to them. He said there is a shortage of vehicles, and officers sometimes must double up, making it next to impossible to cover the geographic areas they are assigned to. “There is not enough time in the day for them to do it because the state doesn’t want them to have overtime.”
He also said that the program would not go that far in reducing the state’s prison population. “It’s not going to relieve the overcrowding as much as they think it is, especially if they go ahead and close these institutions and the [adult transition centers] that he is talking about closing.” Quinn’s administration has confirmed that he plans to move forward with his proposal to close a super-maximum-security prison near Tamms, a women’s prison in Dwight and several halfway houses throughout the state. Inmates from Tamms and Dwight would be moved to other prisons, and the the DOC has acknowledged that the closure of the adult transition centers, which help inmates transition to life outside of prison, could result in some prisoners being sent back behind bars.
Rains said that he thinks reinstating an early release program is a good idea.
“If they get the adequate amount of parole agents out there and everybody has the tools they need to work with, it would be great.” But he says the DOC would need to hire more parole officers and buy more equipment, including cars, computers and bulletproof vests, to ensure that parolees released under the program are properly monitored. “Somebody needs to check on them, and [parolees] need to know that they are going to check on them.” He said even if offenders are put on electronic monitoring, officers play a role. “They still have to have agents go and check where they are going to stay and break down the rules to them and go to check on them from time to time.”
The DOC says it is restructuring its parole department in a way that would put the focus on more dangerous offenders or those more likely to reoffend. “Public safety is always our top priority, and the department is in the process of reorganizing the parole division, which will allow for a higher level of supervision for those who are paroled as a result of sentence credit,” Solano said.
Maki said that DOC will have to administer the program in a mindful way, especially since it is working with limited resources and little potential for substantial new spending in the near future. “Illinois is in a difficult spot,” he said. “It’s not going to open the floodgates. You’re not going to see thousands and thousands of inmates go out. That’s how we’re going to ensure we don’t overrun parole.”
However, he said that the state should rethink some polices, such as sentencing laws, and considering prioritizing programs that are alternatives to incarceration, as well as programs offered to offenders once they are released. “I think this is the first step. A solution is going to be broad-based comprehensive prison reform.”