Overcrowding in Illinois Prisons: The Collusion of a Corrupt Media, Spineless Politicians & Ignorant Citizens
You may have recently read that Illinois’ prison population has surged in the past year. The reasons for this spike in population are a case study in spinelessness, political demagoguery, and public ignorance.
I didn’t write about this issue during our recent gubernatorial elections because I was just so outraged and despondent that all I could articulate was “what the f@c*?” This would not have shed any particular light so I refrained from writing. With some distance, I will try to offer a more coherent presentation of our situation in this state in the hopes that it can serve as a cautionary tale for others who engage in criminal legal reform work across the country (particularly in California at this time).
Adam Dorster offers a review of what happened when Illinois corrections’ administrators used a version of the “Meritorious Good Time Release (MGT)” program to discharge some prisoners in 2009.
If you’re just getting caught up on the controversy, here’s a little background. 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 must 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.)
Last year, officials in the Quinn administration launched MGT Push, an accelerated program in which hundreds of inmates were given the good-conduct credit immediately upon entering prison, before they had a chance to exhibit solid behavior. An AP report last fall found that some of the inmates let out of prison early thanks to MGT Push had violent records and committed additional violent crimes after being let out. In all, the state released 1,745 inmates out of prison before the Quinn administration halted the initiative last winter. The inmates served an average of 36 days less than was required by a judge or jury.
Well you can just imagine what happened when the press got a hold of this story. Media reports suggested that this was a “secret early release” program instituted by the Governor and his corrections administrators. The main culprit was an article by the AP in December 2009 that alleged just this.
During the Democratic Primary season in early 2010, Governor Quinn’s opponent Dan Hynes used this program as a club to assail Quinn as soft on crime and as a bad manager.
Below is another ad by Dan Hynes striking the same note:
Then his general election challenger, Bill Brady, took it to a whole other level trying to basically make this into Quinn’s version of Willie Horton.
Just last month, long time lawyer and criminal justice reform advocate Malcolm Young wrote a comprehensive and scathing report highlighting the media and politicians’ complete overreaction to and basic demagoguery of this issue. He concludes that this was no a political scandal.
The report dated Oct. 28 claims that most news stories on early prisoner release have been false and the issue has wrongly turned into a scandal. Malcolm Young, director of the Program for Prison Reentry Strategies at the university’s Bluhm Legal Clinic, wrote the report, saying the controversy on the issue “resulted in ill-advised legislative and administrative decisions that may actually increase risks to public safety.”
“Contrary to media reports, MGT-Push has not been responsible for a single illegal or premature release of dangerous criminals or for the commission of additional violent crime,” Young writes. “MGT-Push did not cut prison sentences by months or years. It did not add to the public risk or endanger public safety. And it was not ‘secret.’ ”
Malcolm Young offers further context and critical information about the actual MGT program:
Young’s report says MGT Push was simply an alteration of the old MGT program, which had been in place since the 1970s. Randle, the former IDOC director who resigned on Sept. 2, simply did away with an IDOC practice of waiting until an inmate had served 60 days in prison to award the MGT credits, Young notes. Though many prisoners released under MGT Push had served only a few weeks or months in prison before their release, many had already served much more time in county jails while awaiting sentencing, Young says, meaning that prisoners who seemed to have been released early had actually served most of their sentences in county jails.
Vernell R. Robinson, a former inmate sentenced in Sangamon County and released under MGT Push, was sentenced to five years in prison on a narcotics conviction in 2007, and he served only 14 days in state prison before his release. However, he also served 817 days in the county jail before being transferred to prison, according to IDOC. Robinson’s time in the county jail counted toward his prison sentence, and the addition of MGT credits when he was transferred to prison met the legal requirement that he serve at least half of his sentence before being released. [Click for an explanation of Robinson's release.]
Illinois’ Current Prison Situation
While most states are currently reducing their prison populations, Illinois has added more than 3,000 individuals to its prisons, bringing its total population to 48,510 as of November 29th 2010.
It turns out that the suspension of the MGT and other release programs is primarily responsible for this year’s spike in prisoners. I attended a presentation yesterday where Malcolm Young contended that by 2012 Illinois’ prison population would have an extra 9,000 individuals taking it to about 54,000 because of the suspension of the MGT. At an average cost of $25,000 per prisoner to tax payers, this state simply cannot afford to sustain this level of incarceration. For just one year, Illinois will need an additional $56 million to cover these costs. In 2009, taxpayers spent more than $1 billion on state prisons. What are we to do?
The public is grossly misinformed and ignorant about prisons in Illinois. This should not come as any surprise. People in this state are no different than their counterparts across the U.S. This means that the citizenry can easily be manipulated about criminal legal issues. Something is going to have to give…
Lessons from the Fake Scandal
1. The American public needs a massive re-education about our criminal legal system (including prisons). Malcolm Young has written that “[t]he controversy that MGT-Push engendered was based on incorrect facts and misunderstandings of how the criminal justice system operates, including who decides what a sentence to prison will be, and what it will mean in terms of actual time behind prison bars.” We are going to need to introduce education about the criminal legal system in our schools at all levels. In addition, grassroots efforts to educate the general public about prisons and the criminal legal system are sorely needed.
2. Advocates and organizers need to be fearless and vocal. Those of us who are organizing around criminal legal issues need to be unafraid to speak truth to power. Too many of us (I include myself in this criticism) were either silent or ineffective during this entire sorry process. There was no advocate rapid response team to mobilize to fight back against the terrible reporting that created this fake scandal in the first place.
3. Spineless politicians should be voted out of office. Pat Quinn caved to political pressure to force Superintendant Michael Randle out of his job in September. Randle was one of the only IDOC administrators that we have had in this state who really seemed to be responsive to criticisms about the department and its operations. He was in the process of instituting a number of critical reforms within the DOC. My friend, Erica Meiners, who is a prison abolitionist often quotes a Canadian abolitionist who has said that we do reform work because there are “real bodies” in prisons. Meiners rejects as misguided any attempts to pit prison abolitionists against prison reformers. I agree that it is about adopting a both/and approach rather than an either/or one. This is why I have so little patience or time for the minority contingent of prison abolitionists who sometimes disparage the work of reformers. They are only a small contingent of people but they are out there. Anyway I digress…
We need to punish elected officials like Hynes and Brady who use demagoguery as their political weapon of choice. In this case, thankfully, the voters of Illinois defeated both Hynes and Brady. As for Governor Quinn, one can only hope that he stiffens his spine in the future and reinstates the MGT program. It is critical to do so if we are to staunch this consistent increase in our prison population.
4. The Media are primary culprits for spreading misinformation and lies about prisons and the criminal legal system. The Associated Press reported (falsely) that the Illinois Department of Corrections was secretly releasing violent offenders. They reported this in the midst of an election season. This was akin to yelling fire in a crowded theater. They knew what the response to such a report would be and they got just that type of hysterical and hyped up response. The AP and our local media should have to suffer the consequences of creating a fake scandal. The consequences of the suspension of the MGT is having a real impact on real people. To date, I have not seen any RETRACTIONS from the AP about its original story in December. We need the media to be held accountable by the public for printing actual facts rather than sensationalized B.S.
I have been closely following the debates happening in California regarding its prison overcrowding situation. Prison Law Blog is doing some of the best reporting about the current Supreme Court case regarding California’s prisons. I encourage those interested in this topic to follow it.
I think that Californians especially those of you who are reformers and abolitionists should pay close attention to what happened here in Illinois this year. Avoid our mistakes. They have real consequences for many, many people.
Update: I received a couple of e-mails asking for a reference to the original Malcolm Young study. You can access his study HERE.