Monday, August 16, 2010

'MGT Push' report may spur legislation

By Jamey Dunn

After a scathing report from a panel he appointed to look into the controversial “Meritorious Good Time Push (MGT Push) program,” Gov. Pat Quinn faces renewed prompting to clean up early prison release initiatives.

The Associated Press reported in December that the Illinois Department of Corrections (DoC) was applying “good time” credit to prisoners’ sentences as soon as they began serving them, allowing some to walk free after as few as 11 days. The department previously had a longstanding policy that required prisoners to serve at least 61 days before they could receive discretionary early release credit.

Once the escalated version of the program made news, Quinn put an end to it and asked Judge David Erickson to work with his staff to present recommendations for reform. Quinn said he would not reinstate the longstanding Meritorious Good Time program, with its 61-day waiting period, until changes are put in place. “I have suspended all of the meritorious good time until everything is corrected along the lines of what the judge has recommended,” Quinn said at a Chicago news conference.

The panel’s report, which charges the DoC with taking a flawed program and making it worse, will likely affect the governor’s race, as well as spur legislation during the General Assembly's November veto session. “These problems at the Department of Corrections are systemic, they’re longstanding, there’s lots of flaws, they need to be corrected. And I’m going to do that,” Quinn said.

The report first lays out all the factors that should be considered in an early release program:

Statutory early-release programs — such as the Illinois program that awards good conduct
credit for meritorious service — represent an effort on the part of the legislative and executive branches to balance a multitude of objectives, including: (1) ensuring that offenders are adequately punished for their offenses; (2) effectively deterring offenders and would-be offenders from committing offenses; (3) respecting the rights of crime victims; (4) incentivizing incarcerated offenders toward good conduct in prison and rehabilitation; and (5) enabling prison officials to manage inmate populations by addressing legal, operational, and financial concerns associated with prison overcrowding.

It then goes on to describe how the “MGT Push” plan was only geared toward saving money and failed to address some of the most important considerations associated with early release. “The MGT Push program was a mistake. Although focused on reducing costs during a fiscal crisis, it failed to accomplish the overriding goals of the State’s Code of Corrections: protecting the public’s safety and restoring inmates to useful citizenship.”

“MGT Push” resulted in 1,745 inmates being released before the usual 61 days. On average, they served 36 fewer days than they would have under 61-day policy. The DoC estimated that “MGT Push” could save $3.4 million annually.

The report made several recommendations:

  • The legislature should give the DoC the power to revoke “Meritorious Good Time” credit, so it would become a stronger incentive for good behavior. If a prisoner caused problems, the DoC could reduce or take away his or her early release time.
  • The legislature should further restrict which offenses make a prisoner ineligible for good time credit.
  • Prisoners should have more access to education and rehabilitation programs that “facilitate their reentry into society and restore them to useful citizenship.”
  • The DoC should create a consistent method to award good prisoners credit for their sentences and determine what education and reentry help they need.
  • The DoC should release an annual report on the program and streamline communication with local law enforcement jurisdictions to more easily notify them of early releases and get information about prisoners.
  • The DoC should update its computer and database system.
Upgrading the computer system and Quinn’s backing of DoC Director Michael Randle have become points of contention in the governor's race between the Democrat Quinn, who is seeking election to a full term, and state Sen. Bill Brady, the Republican nominee.

Quinn said he wants to direct capital funding to a new DoC computer system and accuses Brady of blocking such efforts. Quinn blamed the aging computer system when the Associated Press uncovered documents showing the state had lost track of more than 50 parolees who were let out of prison early under “MGT Push.”

Brady spokesperson Patty Schuh said Quinn has the power to fund such a project without legislative approval. “He has more money in discretionary (capital) funding than any governor in the history of the state of Illinois and has more (budgeting) power than any governor in the history of Illinois.” Schuh said it was irresponsible of Quinn to release inmates early if he knew the computer system was out of date.

Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, a Lemont Republican, released a statement saying that Quinn never proposed upgrades to the DoC computers during negotiations with legislative leaders over a capital spending bill. "To suggest that legislators of either party have somehow prevented him from upgrading the prisoner tracking system at the Department of Corrections is just not true.”

Brady has also renewed calls for Quinn to fire Randle, who Quinn said released violent offenders early without his knowledge.

Quinn acknowledged that he considered letting Randle go but has decided that he is the best choice to spearhead the new reforms. “The man made a mistake. He is a nationally recognized expert, and he’s done a number of good things with respect to running our prisons. This is not any easy job.”


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