Thursday, October 28, 2010

Report: 'MGT Push' got a bad rap

By Jamey Dunn

A report released today claims the media and politicians wrongly vilified the now infamous “Meritorious Good Time Release Push [MGT Push]” program and exaggerated the program’s affect on public safety.

The report, issued by the Northwestern University School of Law, claims the program — which awarded prisoners “good time” credit at the beginning of their sentences, causing some to spend only weeks in jail — was in line with previous steps taken by the General Assembly to combat overcrowding and rehabilitate criminals through community-based programs when possible.

From the report:

Even before [Corrections Director Michael] Randle’s arrival in June 2009, Illinois policymakers had been considering ways to reduce the number of short-term prisoners. The Illinois legislature expressly endorsed the concept of keeping a significant portion of this group out of prison altogether by passing the Crime Reduction Act of 2009.

The report was written by Malcolm Young, director of the Program for Prison Reentry Strategies with the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University School of Law. He says the media and politicians mischaracterized the program by dwelling on the more sensational aspects and characterizing it as secret.

But he concedes that the complexity of the sentencing process and criminal justice system make it difficult to give a program like MGT Push context when explaining it to the public. “There’s two difficulties for the media on criminal justice issues. One, its very emotional for people. It produces a gut reaction. … The second is, it’s difficult to understand and explain.”

From the report:
While “MGT Push” was hardly secret, it also was not announced with a press conference. The Department treated “MGT Push” as what it was: an administrative change in a practice that was unsupported by law, the result of which was to credit prisoners with ‘good time’ to which they were entitled without an arbitrary 60-day delay and to reduce the cost of putting the Department through an expensive classification process, the outcome of which was irrelevant for prisoners soon to be released in any event.

Young — who is a member of the Quinn Administration's Illinois Adult Corrections Advisory Board but says he is not paid for his service and has never met the governor — said those aware of the program should have seen the controversy coming and done more to explain the need for early release to the public. “Those of us who heard [of MGT Push] or knew about it or talked about it, we’re guilty, too — of not really anticipating what the emotional trigger was or how it could be exploited.” The report accuses Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration of “bad public relations” during the public scandal that ensued.

Young said he is disappointed that the backlash has resulted in early-release programs being shut down in Illinois instead of creating a debate on the best way to fix the correction system with the goal of rehabilitating criminals and reducing crime rates.

Republicans question the results of the Northwestern report, citing a scathing report issued by Judge David Erickson and members of Quinn’s own administration.

“[Those who wrote the] Erickson report had inside and in-depth knowledge of the Department of Corrections,” said Patty Schuh, a spokeswoman for Sen. Bill Brady, the Republican candidate for governor. “The bottom line is, what [Erickson] found was 1,700 inmates were secretly released — many after only serving days in prison. That is a problem. That is a public safety risk.”

Young’s report is critical of Erickson's findings. It also alleges that cutting early release programs may actually harm public safety because criminals whose sentences are reduced spend the time they would have spent behind bars under supervision back in society. The logic is that criminals who serve their full sentences would have to fend for themselves on the outside sooner after release and would be more likely to resort to crime.

Young said that MGT Push set the state back in terms of trying to address overcrowded prisons and rehabilitate felons through community-based programs when appropriate “In retrospect, it wasn’t worth it. It cost a huge amount. But the problem is not that someone tried to implement something as modest as MGT Push. The episode shows us that at any point in time, it would be very difficult to put in place any reform in Illinois that visibly shortens or reduces prison sentences.”

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