When Prisons and Politics Collide


The lessons of Illinois' short-lived accelerated early-prisoner-release program.

Illinois Department of Corrections Director Michael Randle was looking for ways to cut spending in September 2009 when he changed a longtime Illinois Department of Corrections policy that required that inmates serve at least 60 days in prison before being released, even if they were entitled to being freed under “good time” rules.

The change, critics said, opened a revolving door for newly arrived inmates, whose paperwork sometimes was processed in a matter of weeks before they were released on parole.

Randle's move — and the often-misinterpreted publicity about it — lit a political firestorm that cost him a promising career in Illinois, added an unexpected controversy to Pat Quinn's race for governor, and forced the ouster of several senior IDOC staff members.

Ultimately, the state also abandoned its 30-year-old Meritorious Good Time program that cut many prison stays by up to 180 days by rewarding inmates' good behavior.

Without MGT, and Randle's ramped-up version, tagged MGT-Push, the state effectively put a lid on its often overcrowded prisons. The result is the number of inmates in Illinois prisons has exploded to an all-time high of 48,760 as of Feb. 14.

“We shot ourselves in the foot by ending MGT,” DOC senior policy analyst Cory Foster told an audience at Northwestern School of Law in December.

During its brief, three-month tenure, MGT-Push allowed the early release of 1,754 inmates. Another 24,172 prisoners in 2009 were eligible for good-time credits under MGT. Keeping them behind bars (the numbers represent about half of the state's total prison population) for lengthier stays increases the likelihood of violence against other inmates and for prison staff, said John Maki, executive director of The John Howard Association of Illinois, a nonprofit group that monitors Illinois prisons.

“Overcrowding undermines the cost effectiveness of our prison system and threatens the safety of correctional officers and inmates. It decreases the chances that inmates will have access to rehabilitative services, which increases the likelihood that they'll re-offend once they are released,” said Maki.

But the prison population continues to grow as IDOC and state lawmakers work on a replacement for MGT.

“We won't carry forward with a flawed plan,” said department spokeswoman Sharyn Elman.

A year after the plan was disclosed, data obtained by The Pantagraph shows 1,160 inmates, or 65.5 percent of those released through MGT-PUSH, were sent back to prison. Of that number, 416 (24 percent), were arrested or charged with a new crime, but only 57 (3 percent) were found by a judge or parole hearing officer to have committed a new crime.

A larger number, 744, or about 43 percent of the released prisoners, were returned to prison for “technical” violations, such as violating curfew, testing positive for drugs or reporting late to a parole officer.

Randle resigned his Illinois post in September 2010. He agreed to an interview with The Pantagraph, but it was canceled by the communications office of Oriana House, a community correctional center in Cleveland, Ohio, where he now works.

The controversy

The decision to end the 60-day requirement was part of a high-level IDOC discussion on ways to reduce the prison population and the costs associated with housing inmates.

Some staff members warned Randle and top Quinn aides against moving too quickly, saying the change could have long-range, negative consequences.

Those close to the discussion told The Pantagraph they were worried about a lack of notice to prosecutors and police, who would see defendants return to their communities far sooner than anticipated.

They would not be the only ones surprised. Unlike other programs — electronic monitoring for low-level drug offenders, for instance — MGT-Push was not given a formal rollout.

Days after the “secret” program was first reported by The Associated Press, Quinn said he was aware of plans to step up the release of prisoners, but had been assured by Randle that no violent offenders were involved.

Current IDOC administrators contend inmates released from September to December 2009 qualified for the credit.

“The criteria for release were based on Illinois law. Everyone fell within those parameters. No one was improperly released,” said Elman.

But releases under future “good time” programs will follow recommendations of a commission appointed by Quinn to study the release policy, said Cara Smith, recently appointed chief of staff for the IDOC.

“While the releases were consistent with statute and administrative rules, they caused us to focus more clearly on eligibility with an emphasis on public safety,” said Smith.

Prisons, politics collide

The perception that convicts were being secretly released without serving their sentences struck the governor's race like a match to gasoline. Quinn's challengers, including Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, joined a chorus of prosecutors, police and victim advocates who viewed MGT-Push as an opportunity to expand the discussion to all forms of early release programs.

McLean County State's Attorney Bill Yoder did not support what he termed “the super-secret program that they tried to hide from everybody. My philosophy on good-time credit is they should not get any. It's just a way to let people out early.”

Yoder was further bothered that he and others along the criminal justice highway were not told about the policy change affecting the “60-day wonders,” which is IDOC slang for prisoners with short stays.

But travelers along both directions of that highway are well aware of the reductions in sentence length that begin the day a person is taken into custody. They also know about IDOC credits given to all but the most serious offenders. Defendants, if they cannot post bond, also get credit for the time they are jailed before their case is resolved.

The notification requirement was less important to Yoder than it was to some of his colleagues. Yoder's office tracks sex offenders who return to the county, but considers other offenders the responsibility of parole agents. Bloomington and Normal police and McLean County deputies also receive the notifications, agency spokesmen said.

Victims' rights advocates want to see a thorough evaluation before inmates are released.

“We're not wed to a specific number of days. The real issue is that people were released before they had time to be adequately evaluated,” said Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins of Northfield, founder of www.illinoisvictims.org,a victims rights group.

Notification rules should be strictly followed so victims know when offenders are released, she said.

Her group and others support proposed legislative changes, such as excluding violent offenders from release policies, appointing a victim to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board and creating a state registry of murderers.

The IDOC website (www.idoc.state.il.us) routinely posts the names of released inmates and a breakdown of where their sentence was served. Names of those released under MGT-Push were published separately on the website, well after the program started.

Editor's note: This series, with support from the John Jay Center on Media, Crime and Justice, appeared yesterday and today in the Pantagraph of Bloomington, Illinois. Additional stories and graphics in today's package are available here . Edith Brady-Lunny, the author of the stories, is a reporter for The Pantagraph and a former John Jay/HF Guggenheim Reporting Fellow.

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