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The Scandal That Wasn’t or How Not to Reform the Prison System in Illinois

As if Illinois didn’t have enough real scandals, the state’s political and journalist classes — Democratic and Republican — created another one out of whole cloth, and it’s a whopper.  It has led to the firing of a respected chair of the Prisoner Review Board, the forced resignation of a newly appointed and progressive director of the Department of Corrections, increased sentences for thousands of prisoners convicted of minor crimes, postponement of needed reforms, greater prison overcrowding, and a further rise in the state’s already catastrophic flood of red ink.  And to top it all, the ersatz scandal might actually determine who will become the state’s next governor!

The approximate origins of the alleged wrongdoing lay in an anodyne public announcement on September 21, 2009 by the director of Illinois prisons, Michael P. Randle.1  Just three months on the job and still undertaking a system-wide review, Randle noted that the incarcerated population had risen from 18,000 in 1986 to more than 46,000 in 2009, (a 150% increase compared to statewide population growth of just over 4%) and suggested that Illinois needed to develop alternatives to prison for men and women convicted of minor crimes, particularly possession and use of illegal drugs.  He added that the Crime Reduction Act of 2009, just passed by the Illinois Legislature with bipartisan support, called for the creation of “community-based [diversion] programs for those non-violent offenders who would have otherwise received a short-term prison sentence.”  And he suggested — because nearly 70% of people in prison are locked up for non-violent crimes, and 50% have sentences of less than six months — that there were many other opportunities to reduce the state’s prison population and recover some of the $1.3 billion spent annually on corrections.  In informal meetings with prison reform groups, reporters, and legislators, IDOC officials began to talk about the possible release — in some cases with electronic home monitors — of 1,000, 2,000, even 10,000 prisoners serving short sentences for minor crimes.  These observations and recommendations were hardly radical; similar proposals have been made by prison officials in many U.S. states: the crisis of over-incarceration in what Monthly Review has termed “the Penal State” is by now well known, even if barely addressed.2

Three months after Randle’s announcement, a story appeared in the Springfield Journal-Register under the following headline: “Illinois Prisons Shave Terms, Secretly Release Inmates.”3  Written by John O’Connor, a veteran AP reporter in the agency’s Springfield bureau, the story alleged “since September, more than 850 inmates have been released weeks earlier than they ordinarily would be” based upon the award of Meritorious Good Time (MGT), and many of those freed were guilty of “potentially violent crimes.”  The reporter went on to say that the purpose of “the secret change in policy by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s prison system” [sic] was to save money.  (The budget deficit in Illinois is some $12 billion, or $1,000 per every man, woman, and child in the state.)  The prosecutors interviewed by O’Connor were however unconcerned with budgets.  Cook County States Attorney, Anita Alvarez — who made national headlines last year by subpoenaing the grades of some Northwestern University journalism students investigating wrongful convictions — stated that the prisoner releases “could threaten public safety or increase crime.”4  Asked by O’Connor for comment about the “secret plan” dubbed “MGT Push,” the governor’s spokesman denied that any prisoners had in fact been released early.

Sensing vulnerability, State Treasurer Dan Hynes, who was challenging Quinn for the Democratic nomination, began mapping a new campaign strategy.  Republicans too saw an opportunity.  Hoping to fend off his opponents before they began their attacks, Quinn reversed direction and admitted that some prisoners were indeed mistakenly set free early, but he added: “I did not approve the acceleration, and I think it was bad judgment to do it, and when I learned about it, I suspended it.”5  IDOC Director Randle then issued his own statement accepting responsibility, sort of: “There were mistakes made in judgment in the planning.  It was not implemented the way the governor directed, and as director of this agency, I take responsibility.”

Hynes however was undeterred by the mea culpas.  “The incompetence shown here is staggering,” he stated, “from the very beginning when he denied the program existed, then said he didn’t know about it, then said he did.  This calls into question his competence and judgment.”6  The television advertisements that followed, containing mug shots of some of the released convicts, were in the tradition of the infamous Willie Horton ads created by Lee Atwater for George H.W. Bush’s campaign against Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.  To be sure, Hynes managed to achieve rough racial parity in his line-up, but the effect of demonizing poor, mostly non-white men was the same.  And unlike 1988, the baiting and bloodletting this time was intraparty and fratricidal — one putatively progressive Democrat playing the race and fear card against another.

By February, the political struggle shifted to more familiar terrain.  Having just survived the primary challenge by Hynes, Quinn was now opposed by Republican Bill Brady whom he will face in the general election in November.  Brady seemed to Democrats at the time a dream opponent.  First, he is far to the right of Illinois voters on most issues: abortion (no exceptions for rape or incest), gay rights (no civil unions or marriage), guns (automatic weapons are just fine), and the teaching of evolution (he is against it).  Second, he won his primary victory by a margin of just 193 votes in a three-candidate pool — even most Republicans did not want him to be governor.  And third, he is anti-puppy.  That, anyway, is the entirely plausible claim of any opponent: just two days after winning the primary, Brady introduced a bill in the Illinois Senate (510 ILCS 70/3.09), opposed by the Humane Society, permitting puppy mills and animal shelters to mass euthanize animals by carbon monoxide gas.  To Brady’s credit, the bill mandated that the “gas chambers [be] well lit and equipped with view‑ports.”  But recognizing that placing windows in pet death chambers might not be enough to placate the animal-loving press (who immediately publicized the bill), Brady handed sponsorship over to his colleague John O. Jones, who soon tabled it.

With the puppy crisis more or less behind him, Brady went after Quinn in the way that every successful Republicans has since Nixon — law and order and race.  He was relentless in his attacks upon the governor for MGT Push, and issued almost weekly demands that Director Randle (who is black) be fired.  “Gov. Quinn had a secret early release program that jeopardized the public safety of Illinois,” was probably the mildest of Brady’s charges.  On one occasion, he claimed that murderers had been let loose to kill again, a charge buttressed by stories that appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Huffington Post.7

The first major political casualty of the “early release” scandal was Jorge Montes, the longtime and widely respected chair of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, fired by Quinn in late July.  Earlier that month, a prisoner granted standard MGT release committed a murder in Peoria.  (More on this below.)  However, this was not Montes’s only liability in an election year: he was also deeply disliked by members of the politically powerful IllinoisVictims.Org because he is in favor, sometimes, of releasing men and women from prison, a position at odds with a group whose openly stated goal is to make it “harder to let any inmate out.”8  The group, for example, supported a bill in the state Senate that would require every one of the 15 members of the PRB be in attendance to hear victim testimony before a prisoner may be granted release or parole.  (Parole was outlawed in Illinois in 1978 as part of the nationwide drive for so-called “truth-in-sentencing” laws, but some 250 prisoners sentenced before that date may still be eligible.)  Due to illness, one current member of the PRB, former IDOC director Roger E. Walker, has not attended a single meeting of the PRB in a year.  If the proposed bill were law, no prisoner this year would have been granted the release time due him under the current law.

The next episode in the MGT-Push saga was Governor Quinn’s attempted autogolpe of August 13, when an investigative panel he himself formed determined that MGT Push “was a mistake.”  The panel’s report, whose preparation was overseen by former Appellate Judge David Erickson, added: “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.”  The report continued: “The Department failed to appreciate the public safety implications of the preexisting program, and MGT Push deserved the criticism it received.”  Confirming the growing impression that Quinn’s strategy for victory was to play rope-a-dope and accept every blow delivered to him, the governor claimed vindication from the report.  He asserted that his prompt acknowledgement of the “early release” problem, and quick suspension of MGT Push in Winter 2010, averted a possible public safety disaster.  Brady however was determined to claim his pound of flesh.  He stated that the Erickson report validated his charges of recklessness, proved that the Governor in fact knew and approved MGT Push in advance, and that his and fellow Republicans’ legislative initiative to severely limit MGT has probably saved lives.  He called again for the firing of IDOC director Randle and termed the prisoner release “one of the greatest lapses of public safety in recent history.”

Finally in early August, the last shoe dripped: Randle announced his resignation as Director of IDOC to take a job, at less than half his salary, to run a 200-bed youth-detention facility in Ohio.  At a news conference the day after the announced resignation, Quinn professed mild surprise at the turn of events and reminded reporters that: “This happens in government, private life.  People come, they go.”9  The governor was essentially asking reporters to believe that Randle, a talented, experienced, and ambitious corrections professional, had quit the White Sox to play for the Peoria Chiefs!

The basic contours of the MGT-Push saga told above, has now become the accepted version of history: 1) A secret and dangerous plan is hatched, 2) an intrepid reporter blows the whistle on it, 3) the politicians responsible for it run for cover, 4) political opponents make the scandal a campaign issue, 5) an independent panel issues its report and the dangerous program is ended, and 6) a few people get fired.  The story has been repeated in Illinois newspapers all over the state, on radio, TV, and in blogs, such as Capital Fax, the much-read and rarely challenged gossip-sheet written by a libertarian from Springfield named Rich Miller.  There is one problem with the narrative, however: it is false from beginning to end.

1) Nobody was “released early” by means of MGT; all prisoners served terms mandated by law or determined by judges and states attorneys.  When prosecutors and defense attorneys meet to work out guilty pleas and sentence recommendations in lieu of a trial, they take into consideration all the programs that provide good-time and other credits.  If a defendant is convicted and serves only a few weeks of a one-year sentence, the defense attorney, the prosecutor, and the judge are the last ones to be surprised.

2) The scheduled release of prisoners under MGT Push was not a secret, but was part of the normal, daily business of the IDOC not announced in press releases.  The names of all released convicts is published on an IDOC website, and as soon as the controversy over MGT Push arose, the names of those released according to the terms of that program were specially highlighted.

3) MGT Push did not endanger the public.  Most of the released prisoners were low-level drug users or sellers who never exhibited a propensity to violence.  For them and the others, including drunk drivers and men involved in domestic abuse, the average sentence reduction was just 36 days, and there is no reason to think that an extra month of incarceration would have decreased their likelihood of re-offending.  (In fact, evidence indicates that longer sentences for minor crimes increases rates of recidivism.)

4) Most US states have some version of MGT or MGT Push, and they have been proven both safe and effective at providing incentives for good behavior and reducing prison over-crowding.  The Illinois system in fact is less far-reaching than the one suggested by the non-partisan, governor appointed Taxpayer Action Board.  In its June 2009 report, the TAB proposed that the State review all prisoners: “for parole and early-release consideration . . . to determine which prisoners do not pose a threat to society, for example those prisoners who are elderly, infirm, or those who have been incarcerated for non-violent drug or property-related crimes.  This group is of substantial size: there are 4,400 inmates who are 50 or older, nearly 10% of all inmates in Illinois.  Inmates serving time for drug or property-related crimes represent nearly 44% of all prisoners.”10

5) The Republican bill to restrict MGT, signed by Pat Quinn and approved by the Erickson panel, has already increased the state’s prison population by over 2,500 at a cost of more than $64 million dollars per year.  The budget impact cannot be easily dismissed.  Indeed, if the total suspension of MGT now in effect were to continue, the financial impact would be disastrous.  Some 30,000 prisoners per year are eligible for MGT.  If none of them receive it, they will each spend an extra 60 days in prison.  At an average cost of $65 per prisoner per day, that means that, if MGT is not restored, the citizens of Illinois will pay an additional $175 million per year in prison costs!  Reports from prisoners indicate that the IDOC is responding to its increased population not by hiring more guards and building new cells, but by doubling up in former single cells, converting gyms to cells, cutting food portions, and delaying services such as mail delivery.  (It now takes 1 ½ months for a prisoner to write and receive a letter in return.)

If the MGT-Push scandal is in fact a myth, why has it been repeated so often by the press, its basic elements uncontested by the beleaguered governor and his former IDOC chief?  The answer in short is publicity and expediency.  For the daily press, the tangle of laws and regulations regarding release time for good behavior does not make a compelling story.  The rules are generations old, constantly changing, and of byzantine complexity, with some credits awarded at the moment of sentencing, others before actual prison placement, and still others for participation in drug treatment and other life-skills classes or completion of a GED.  All these awards have the effect of reducing the prison population, rewarding good behavior in prison (and discouraging bad behavior), and saving the state money.  But as rehabilitation programs have diminished in recent years due to budget pressures and prison overcrowding, increasing amounts of MGT have been awarded to prisoners — primarily non-violent ones serving short sentences — simply for being alive.  Without MGT, the prison population would, as we have seen, rise to unsustainable levels, the safety of inmates and guards would be endangered, and the state budget busted — or busted more than it already has been.  Indeed, the impetus for MGT Push — the slightly accelerated program of release that has been so controversial — was to halt the hemorrhage of money caused by what the IDOC calls its “61 day wonders.”  These are the prisoners whose sentences are so short that they must be released before they have access to any drug rehabilitation or mental health treatment, thus wasting the thousands of dollars spent to transport, evaluate, and classify them.  Where formerly the IDOC kept these people in prison for at least 60 days before they were eligible for release, under MGT Push, that policy was relaxed.  For the press to tell this story with any accuracy and detail would require more resources, and a more receptive readership than it has.

Nor have prison reform organizations such as the John Howard Association, the various public interest laws firms such as the Bluhm Legal Clinic, Uptown People’s Law, and the People’s Law Office, and the many, small, voluntary prisoner advocacy and re-entry groups been effective at providing an accurate picture of MGT and the crisis of Illinois prisons.  Absent a statewide, grassroots movement of citizens demanding alternatives to incarceration as well as counseling, education, and jobs for those who are released, the victims’ rights groups — allied with law-and-order Republicans — will continue to dominate the newspapers and airwaves, as well as the backrooms in the state capitol.

And if the press and civil society organizations have been unable or unwilling to tell the true story of MGT and Illinois’s budget-busting, prison overcrowding, how can politicians be expected to do any different?  Senator Brady certainly has no incentive — he found his own Willie Horton in a prisoner named Edjuan Payne who in May murdered a Peoria grandmother after his early release from prison.  In fact, Payne was not set free according to the terms of MGT Push but based upon a careful — but evidently mistaken — evaluation of his record by a bi-partisan and law-enforcement-heavy Prisoner Review Board.  (He had been convicted of a non-violent offense, and his release was more or less routine.)  Nor does Pat Quinn have much reason to carefully explain and defend IDOC policy: the press and public wouldn’t pay attention anyway, and since he has a few scapegoats ready to hand — Director Randle, and in the case of Edjuan Payne the PRB — why stick his neck out any further than it already is?  Better to appoint a compliant commission, accept their mild criticism, claim to have acted quickly and forcefully, fire the guy in charge of prisons, and move on; he can revisit the whole MGT mess again during his next term — if there is one.

The problem with Illinois corrections is not MGT Push.  The problem is severe overcrowding and a 50% recidivism rate.  Right now, nearly 48,000 inmates are housed in facilities designed to hold just 31,000.  Thousands of these prisoners are being held for crimes such as shoplifting (more than 1,000), marijuana possession (5,000), and other victimless offenses.  Thousands more are incarcerated for mere technical violations of the terms of their parole — including failure to call a parole officer or possession of alcohol in the home.  These prisoners cost the citizens of Illinois a yearly average of $25,000 each, money that would be better used to prevent serious crimes such as murder (Chicago’s murder rate remains stubbornly high compared to other major US cities), or used to pay for firefighters, school teachers, parks, and additional essential public services.  Other states, including New York, New Jersey, Michigan, and even Republican Kansas have all managed to reduce their prison populations and crime rates at the same time.  New York reduced its prison population by more than 20% and its crime rate by 30%!  Saving money is compatible with public safety.

Illinois is now poised to elect its next governor based upon a lie — or at least a contrivance repeated by Dan Hynes, Bill Brady, Judge Erickson, Pat Quinn, and an inattentive or scandal hungry press — that may continue to damage the state for a generation.  Lost in the shuffle are the other election issues that deserve more sustained attention: the colossal budget deficit and the question of new taxes, stubbornly high unemployment and rising poverty rates, poor mass transit and a crumbling infrastructure, underfunded schools, colleges, and universities, and environmental degradation.  The irony here — in the state that has seen four of its last six governors imprisoned or impeached — is that Illinois may soon be laid low not by a scandal, but by a scandal that wasn’t.

 

1  “IDOC Director Randle Announces Prison Reforms,” eNews Park Forest, 21 September 2009.

2  Hanna Holleman, Robert W. McChesney, John Bellamy Foster, and R. Jamil Jonna, “The Penal State in an Age of Crisis,” Monthly Review, June 2009.

3  John O’Connor, “Illinois Prisons Shave Terms, Secretly Release Inmates,” Associated Press, 13 December 2009.

4  Associated Press, “Prosecutors Seek Journalism Students’ Grades,” 8 November 2010.

5  Monique Garcia, “Gov. Pat Quinn Admits Mistake on Early-release of Prisoners, Blames Corrections Chief,” Chicago Tribune, 31 December 2009

6  “Gov. Quinn: Early Release Program ‘Very Big Mistake’,” ABC7Chicago, 31 December 2009.

7  “Murderers Released: Illinois Prisoners Freed In Budget Shortfall,” Huffington Post, 6 January 2010.

8   <www.mikemayborne.com/Victims_Issues.html>.

9  Deanna Bellandi, “Embattled Illinois Prisons Chief Resigns,”, Associated Press, 2 September 2010.

10 Report of the Taxpayer Action Bord, June 2009, Tom Johnson, Chair, p. 81.  Available at <www2.illinois.gov/budget/Documents/TABreport.pdf>.


Stephen F. Eisenman, Northwestern University.




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