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Thursday, June 7, 2012 09:01 am

Lawmakers vote to reinstate early prisoner release

Would require annual reports, include inmate evaluations

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Illinois prison inmates may soon qualify for early release once more under a bill passed by state lawmakers last week.

If approved by Gov. Pat Quinn, the move would address state prison overcrowding that resulted in part from the suspension of early prisoner release more than two years ago.

On May 31, the last day of the legislature’s spring session, the Illinois House approved Senate Bill 2621, which builds on the state’s previous framework for awarding “sentence credits” to inmates as a reward for compliance, service to the state or community, or successful completion of programming such as educational courses. The bill passed the Senate a week earlier with nearly unanimous support.

If approved by Quinn, it would give the director of the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) sole discretion in awarding sentence credits and give the director power to revoke credits. Previously, credits could not be revoked.

John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association, a Chicago-based prison watchdog group, says the legislation would also allow the IDOC director to consider factors like an inmate’s risk assessment, previous criminal history or potential for rehabilitation when awarding credits. IDOC was previously barred from using those factors as a basis for awarding or denying credits, Maki says.

Under the new system, the director would have to provide annual reports to the governor and the General Assembly, detailing how many inmates received credits, the average number of credits awarded, and more.

Maki says that provision means better transparency for the early release system.

“We’ll actually be able to see how DOC is doing this,” he says.

The proposed system would provide 60 days of credit for inmates who earn a GED while in county jail. Inmates who complete a behavior modification course or similar program in county jail before being transferred to state prison could also receive credits.

The new system would preserve rules stating that credits cannot be awarded to inmates serving time for serious crimes like murder, kidnapping, rape or aggravated drunk driving.

Illinois’ previous incarnation of early prisoner release started in the 1970s and lasted until late 2009, when Quinn, facing a heated primary battle to retain his seat as governor, suspended early release in response to an Associated Press report that about 2,000 inmates had spent only days or weeks of their sentences in prison. In its report, AP revealed IDOC’s newly-adopted MGT Push program, which awarded good conduct credits before an inmate had served 60 days in prison.

Many of those inmates received credit for long periods of time spent in county jails before their convictions.

Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson says Quinn will evaluate the legislation, but she couldn't say whether the governor would sign it. Toni Irving, Quinn’s deputy chief of staff, previously told Illinois Times that Quinn would defer to lawmakers on early release.

Maki says Illinois prisons have been overcrowded for some time, but the suspension of early release coincided with a 10 percent increase in the prison population, from about 45,000 inmates on average in 2009 to about 49,000 in the space of one year. Currently, that figure stands at about 48,000, Maki says.

“We led the country in adding new prisoners to our system,” Maki says.

Reinstating early release is the first step, Maki says, in a broader overhaul of the state’s criminal laws.

“This is not comprehensive criminal reform; this is triage,” Maki says.

Bill Ryan, founder of the prison newsletter Statesville Speaks, agrees that Illinois needs a fresh look at its criminal laws. He says the early release bill passed with strong bipartisan support, though he’s not sure why it took more than two years for lawmakers to address.

“It’s pretty straightforward, and it just reinstated what was already there with some extra provisions,” Ryan says. “There seems to be some vindictiveness in Illinois about just wanting to keep people locked up. This should have been done two years ago. It’s a baby step, but it’s a step.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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