The Challenge of Cutting Prison Populations


In 2008, Mississippi lawmakers knew something had to change or the state would spend millions on new prison beds.

“We were facing the possibility of going broke just to keep up,” said Mississippi State Sen. Willie Simmons, who worked in the state's correctional system for 30 years before joining the legislature and leading the corrections committee.

Thus, a series of changes in sentencing laws and parole programs resulted in the release of 4,516 inmates to parole since 2008, according to the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

llinois also faces serious challenges with its prisons' budget and population, which clocked a record 48,739 inmates earlier this month.

The higher census follows a trend that started in January 2010 after Gov. Pat Quinn halted the Meritorious Good Time (MGT) and MGT-Push programs.

MGT gave inmates up to 180 days' credit for good conduct. The short-lived MGT-Push removed a requirement that inmates serve a minimum of 60 days even if their anticipated stay in prison was below that mark.

The Illinois Department of Corrections has made it a high priority to create a replacement for MGT.

“We are continuing our analysis and discussions about credit that could be earned by inmates in the Department of Corrections,” Cara Smith, the agency's chief of staff, told The Pantagraph (Bloomington IL) this week.

$1.36 Billion Budget Increase

The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) budget could increase more than 10 percent to $1.36 billion in 2012, with much of the new funding covering salaries of
additional correctional officers hired to reduce overtime costs brought about by the increased prison population.

Before the MGT controversy, Illinois was making progress in efforts to better prepare inmates for re-entry to their communities because the state has a 51.3 percent recidivism rate.

But now, inmates returning to the outside world may be less likely to succeed because IDOC has limited educational and counseling services available.

The Danville Correctional Center, for instance, has a shortage of teachers for its GED and adult basic education programs available for its 1,821 prisoners, according to a recent report from the John Howard Association of Illinois.

Given the length of the GED waiting list, many inmates will finish their prison term before they are eligible for class, said the association, which monitors juvenile and adult corrections facilities.

Prison Population Drops in 27 States

Nationwide, 27 states reported fewer prison admissions in 2009, according to the federal Bureau of Statistics. Illinois was among 23 states with higher prison populations. In that year, some 1.4 million people were behind bars in state prisons, a decrease of 5,739 from 2008. It was the first year-to-year drop since 1972.

States that have seen the sharpest drop in prison admissions have undertaken bold policy changes. While the fiscal challenges facing most states would be enough to convince officials to open cell doors, other factors also have played a part.

Mississippi has the highest incarceration rate in the nation, at 735 per 100,000 residents.There, state leaders implemented a series of changes starting in 2008 that allowed inmates to earn more “good-time credit” toward their release.

The prison population dropped further when lawmakers said all nonviolent offenders were eligible for parole after serving 25 percent of their sentence. The law had a unique, retroactive element that permitted about 3,000 inmates to be immediately eligible for parole.

In Michigan, the drop in prison population started four years ago after setting a record at 51,554. A recent census of about 44,000 reflects a policy shift that reduced the number of inmates who serve more than 100 percent of their minimum sentence.

“If you're a model citizen in prison, you're probably going to serve four years,” said Michigan corrections spokesman John Cordell. He said the department budget has
remained stable and would be significantly higher without the changes.

Michigan does not offer day-for-day good-conduct credit or meritorious good-time programs. Critics argue the state has not seen a corresponding shrink in the state's
corrections budget.

Oregon also put new programs in place to release offenders sooner rather than later. But there, victim advocates criticize the emotional trauma that comes from court hearings for additional good-time credits for inmates.

Corrections officials say the earned-time program has saved an estimated $25 million and an average of 55 fewer days behind bars for eligible inmates.

Words Matter

Across the country, states are trying to strike a balance between policies that ultimately reduce prison population and a perception that such policies can threaten public safety.

And, sometimes, it's a matter of how the decisions are phrased: public word of MGT-Push came through the media, which termed it a “secret early release program.”

In fact, it was essentially a tweak to an administrative rule already in place.

Last year, a study by the Pew Center on the States' Public Performance Project showed strong support for using money saved from prison spending to help pay for community-based parole and probation programs.

In Illinois, “early release” was used to describe the MGT program, although MGT actually did not reduce any inmates' sentences. A report prepared for IDOC in August
suggests any replacement program for MGT be more in line with so-called “earned time” policies used in other states.

The Pew survey also showed the term “mandatory supervision” is favored over “alternatives to incarceration” and “community corrections.”

ED NOTE: This story is the second of a series which appeared in The Pantagraph
(Bloomington IL) on Sunday. The entire series is available at :

Edith Brady-Lunny is a reporter for The Pantagraph. She is a former Reporting Fellow at the Center on Media, Crime and Justice.

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