AP Exclusive: Lawmakers seek prison crowding fix

January 20, 2012 - 7:25 PM
Illinois Prison Crowding

FILE - In this April 2004 file photo, eighty-six inmates share a dormitory at the minimum-security Vandalia Prison in Vandalia, Ill. With Illinois' prison population continuing to rise and Gov. Pat Quinn refusing to reinstate a program that gave well-behaved prisoners early release, lawmakers from both parties are pushing plans this spring to find alternatives to incarceration or other ideas to reduce the state's packed lockups. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman,File)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Lawmakers from both parties are seeking ways to reduce Illinois' growing prison population, and one has introduced legislation to restart a contentious program that let well-behaved prisoners out early.

Gov. Pat Quinn shut down the 30-year-old early release program after The Associated Press reported in 2009 that prison officials had implemented an unpublicized, accelerated version that was springing criminals in as little as eight days.

He has shown no interest in reviving it, but least one legislator is looking at it again as the prison population has grown by 3,000 inmates in two years. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers is meeting with Quinn to find solutions more palatable to the governor and the public.

Conditions inside state prisons are "wretched," according to John Maki, executive director of the prison watchdog group John Howard Association. Monitoring visits to Illinois lockups in the past year have revealed inmates housed in gymnasiums, standing water in living quarters and rodent problems.

Illinois is not alone in trying to address prison crowding. An August report by the American Civil Liberties Union identified six states that have adopted laws in the past five years to decrease prison populations, with four more working on the issues. One of the more popular tacks among reform states is to expand good-conduct credit, including in Kentucky and Ohio just last year.

Prison advocates nationwide generally support early release as one solution to overcrowding, and Rep. Art Turner, D-Chicago, has introduced legislation that would restore Illinois' accelerated early-release program. But the governor previously has said he won't go along with that, even with new controls imposed by lawmakers, after problems with the program nearly cost him reelection in 2010.

Instead, Quinn's staff has been working with a group of legislators who plan to pick up the pace when the General Assembly resumes its work later this month. Some told the AP they hope to have a solution by the end of the spring session.

The group includes Rep. Dennis Reboletti, a law-and-order legislator who speaks of being "smart on crime" and advocates alternative sentencing, such as treatment for first- or second-time substance abusers.

"Put them into community-based programs with ankle bracelets, into treatment centers or halfway houses where they can get job counseling or programming to put them back into a productive life," the Elmhurst Republican said.

As of November, there were 48,620 people incarcerated in Illinois, 144 percent more than the 33,700 for which space was designed, according to the Corrections Department. But department officials now play down those numbers, saying "operational capacity" is about 51,200. That's after the agency began counting how many people a facility can actually hold, along with what it was designed to house.

For decades in Illinois, the director of the Corrections Department had the discretion to cut sentences with "meritorious good time," or MGT, by up to six months for an inmate who displayed good behavior behind bars.

But Quinn abandoned the practice in December 2009 after the AP reported that the agency secretly dropped an informal requirement that all incoming inmates serve 60 days behind bars before getting good-time credit in a plan dubbed "MGT Push." More than 1,700 inmates were released under that program, and some went on to commit more crimes.

Derrick King, for example, was sentenced to three years in prison for a brutal attack on a woman in 2008. He served about a year in county jail and 14 days in state prison before he was released in October 2009 under MGT Push and then arrested the next day on suspicion of assault and sent back to prison.

Lawmakers later put the 60-day minimum sentence requirement into law. An independent review of the accelerated early-release program determined the Quinn administration had failed to consider dangers to public safety in trying to save money and recommended it be reinstated with reforms.

Quinn has not said why his administration will not reinstate the program, although he said in October 2010 he was focusing on "alternative sentencing approaches." Spokeswoman Brooke Anderson confirmed he's working with the legislative group to "manage population numbers while continuing to incarcerate — for safety, rehabilitation, and punishment."

Along with Reboletti, the panel meeting with Quinn's staff about a solution includes Sen. Kirk Dillard, R-Hinsdale and Sen. Michael Noland, D-Elgin. Each says he's open to options that keep the public safe but reduce the inmate population to make prisons safer and spare the state budget. The House Democrats' representative is parliamentarian David Ellis, the governor's office said.

Dillard, a candidate for governor in 2010 and potentially again in 2014, said early release is not popular, given the shock of MGT Push.

"My constituents want people locked up," he said. "They're tired of people who still should be locked up in the penitentiary (out) committing crimes."

Nonetheless, he's open to ideas such as Reboletti's.

Turner's bill would reverse the new 60-day minimum prison sentence requirement and give the Corrections director discretion to release anyone who has served 60 days behind any bars, including in county jails. Turner did not return repeated calls and an email seeking comment.

Regardless of the method, something has to happen soon, Maki said.

At Vandalia prison in June, John Howard visitors found dirty, stagnant water pooling on the floor of inmates' living areas. One dormitory, Building 19, at Vienna prison in September had rodent droppings and inmates complained of mice and cockroaches. Windows on two floors were broken and birds had built nests inside.

"When you put nonviolent offenders in deplorable conditions you're not going to make this person better," said Maki, whose report blames Quinn and lawmakers who have cut corrections budgets. "Prisons are not typically uplifting places, but Building 19 was one of the most depressing things I've ever seen."

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Online:

Turner's bill is HB3899: http://www.ilga.gov

Illinois Department of Corrections: http://tinyurl.com/7f2wv4p

John Howard Association: http://www.thejha.org/

ACLU prison reform report: http://tinyurl.com/3nuat86