PI Original Adam Doster Thursday October 28th, 2010, 1:49pm

"Setting The Record Straight" On Quinn's Early Release Program

If Gov. Pat Quinn loses the governor's race on Tuesday, analysts will point to the MGT Push controversy as a key component of the Democrat's downfall. Does Quinn deserve the blame?

If Gov. Pat Quinn loses the governor's race on Tuesday, analysts will point to the MGT Push controversy as a key component of the Democrat's downfall.

Roughly eleven months ago, Quinn's early (and substantial) lead in the Democratic gubernatorial primary virtually vanished when Comptroller Dan Hynes used the governor's stewardship of his meritorious early prison release program to characterize his opponent as undisciplined. Although Quinn survived the race, that damaging meme stuck. GOP nominee Bill Brady has used it to club Quinn repeatedly during the gubernatorial campaign.

Were the attacks on the Democratic incumbent fair? Was MGT Push a serious danger to public safety? Malcolm Young, a longtime Illinois prison reformer and director of the Program for Prison Reentry Strategies at Northwestern's Bluhm Legal Clinic, differs decidedly from conventional wisdom in his analysis of the program. In a lengthy report released today, Young boldly argues that "nearly all of the charges against the program are false." Quinn's administration, this report suggests, isn't nearly as careless as his critics contend.

Let's back up just a bit before we dive into the report. 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 who qualify 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.)

When Quinn brought in Michael Randle to head DOC, one of his first priorities was to reduce the number of short-term prisoners within the system. Because prison officials must "devote time and resources to assess, test, and diagnose each new prisoner's medical, mental, behavioral, and physical condition prior to assigning him or her to an appropriate prison facility," as Young notes, inmates with short sentences place a disproportionate burden on the stressed department. (The Crime Reduction Act of 2009 was one, and hopefully not the last, legislative attempt to keep short-termers out of state facilities in the first place.)

Randle's solution was straightforward. While DOC's criteria for awarding MGT credits did not change, meaning the law wasn't changed that bars the distribution of credits to inmates convicted of some serious crimes, Randle waived the customary 61 day waiting period. Although there was no formal press conference announcing Randle's administrative change, Randle unveiled the reform at a John Howard Association event in September 2009 and subsequently discussed it in media interviews. This may have been naive. As Young puts it, "Department officials and the Administration failed to anticipate the eagerness with which the news media, commentators, and political opponents would equate 'early release' with increased risk to public safety no matter the facts."

The conflation between risk and release was nearly universal. An AP report last fall, which sparked the scandal, found that some of the inmates let out of prison early thanks to MGT Push had what the press service described as "violent" records and committed additional crimes after being let out. In August, Former Judge David Erickson released a report panning the Illinois Department of Correction's oversight of MGT Push, calling it a "mistake" that presented "dangers to the public safety."

Those facts, though, don't seem to support these assertions. Looking through the data of those who took advantage of the program during 2009, the professor found that Randle's decision did not dramatically change the amount of time served for the vast majority of inmates. The average sentence reduction was actually just 37 days.

So what about the violent offenders who DOC officials allegedly released early, only to find that they re-offended? The early date of release for the three defendants identified in the AP's first story on the topic were largely set by a plea bargain approved by a trial court prosecutor and agreed to by the offender's lawyers and a courtroom judge. Various stakeholders in the criminal justice system -- sentencing judges and prosecutors in particular -- use "statutory good time" credits as incentives to force guilty pleas from low-level defendants who take up a lot of valuable time in court. Those credits "are the grease on which cases slide expeditiously through a court system that is every bit as crowded as are Illinois jails and prisons." More from the report:

Under Illinois sentencing law, these three inmates' sentences had essentially been completed by the time they arrived at the Department of Corrections. What the MGT-Push program did was simply reduce the 60 day delay in awarding MGT credits. The amount of time saved by MGT-Push in these three cases was 39, 42 and 43 days. These amounts of time were minor compared to the 50% reduction effected by “day-for-day” or “statutory” good time.

Let's not forget that the recidivism rate over three years is 52 percent in Illinois. To make the case that the program led to an increase in recidivism, one would have to track the criminal records of every inmate released after Randle's administrative change for 36 months. After all, letting anyone out of prison, particularly when the safety net for ex-offenders has so many holes, carries risks. Here's a short clip we shot early this year of prison reformers making this important point:

The practical results of the MGT Push suspension are unsettling. By legislating that inmates must stay in the system for at least 74 days before their meritorious credits can be accessed, the state effectively reduces the amount of time he or she may be supervised in the community by parole agents and rehabilitation service providers. And since the program was halted 10 months ago, the already-immense state prison population jumped by 3,000 inmates:

Young, it should be noted, was appointed by the Quinn administration to the DOC's Adult Advisory Board last year. But the professor makes a convincing case that "Illinois has become a textbook example of what can happen when politics overrides sound policy and facts yield to hyperbole in criminal justice decision-making." While the execution of the MGT Push had some flaws, Quinn's program does not seem to have endangered public safety anywhere near to the degree voters have been lead to believe.

With the election just days away, it's a message undecided voters should take to heart.

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