What is early release?

Like most states, Illinois has several programs that allow prisoners to be released into the community with some kind of supervision, instead of serving out their maximum sentence in prison. Corrections experts view these so-called “early release” programs as safe, cost effective tools for easing inmates’ re-entry into society and reducing recidivism.

Earned Good Time reduces the prisoner’s sentence for completion of specific in-prison programs, including educational, vocational, substance abuse treatment, and correctional industries programs.

Day-for-Day Good Time awards good conduct credit (on a day- for-day basis) for prisoners convicted of most low-level offenses.

Meritorious Good Time (MGT) allows prison officials to award up to 180 days good conduct credit “for meritorious service in specific instances as the Director deems proper.”

Early release debacle of 2009

At the end of 2009, two Illinois programs were halted in the wake of negative publicity. They are: 2009 Electronic Monitoring Program and Illinois Department of Corrections 2009 Meritorious Good Time (MGT) Push Plan.

2009 Electronic Monitoring Program

Illinois law allows Illinois of Department of Corrections (IDOC) to release offenders when they are near the end of their sentences if they meet certain criteria (including that they not be convicted of serious violent crimes), so long as they wear electronic monitoring bracelets and report to a parole agent once a month.

With much fanfare, the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) began releasing people under the electronic monitoring program in September 2009. The Department excluded prisoners convicted of violent crimes from this initiative. Of the 32,000 prisoners who were eligible for the program, prison officials selected only 1000 for release.

In January 2010, following negative publicity after about 200 prisoners had gone home on electronic monitoring, Gov. Quinn halted the program. He said he would await a review by Michael J. McCotter, whom he appointed that month as the chief public safety public safety officer of IDOC.

IDOC’s 2009 MGT Push Plan

“MGT Push” is the name given to one type of MGT, under which prisoners are granted meritorious good time even if they have not served 61 days in prison. Before the MGT Push initiative, IDOC had an unwritten rule requiring prisoners to serve 61 days at IDOC before being released early. In late 2009, the Department began releasing some prisoners earlier than 61 days under MGT Push. (Bear in mind that the 61 days almost always followed incarceration at a local jail while the prisoner was awaiting trial and sentencing). Prisoners convicted of some violent crimes are eligible for MGT, and some with such convictions were included under the MGT Push program, a fact that sparked intense negative publicity. MGT Push was not announced ahead of time, leading to accusations that the program was secret.

At the end of December 2009, Gov. Quinn halted MGT Push, saying that he would formalize the 61-day rule and provide local prosecutors with at least 14 days advance notice before releasing a prisoner into mandatory supervision. He also appointed former Judge David A. Erickson to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of MGT (including MGT Push). Nevertheless, the next month the legislature passed and Gov. Quinn signed a bill outlawing MGT Push. Thus, there is no turning back: now Illinois law forbids IDOC from releasing any prisoners early unless they have served 61 days in prison.

When MGT Push was halted, more than 1700 offenders had been released under the program. Those prisoners spent an average of just 37 fewer days in prison than they would have, according to Gov. Quinn. He also said that on average, the offenders had spent 95 days in county jail and 26 in state prison before being released. When the program was halted, 56 of the 1700 released prisoners were back in state custody, 48 of them charged with violating the terms of their release and eight charged with new offenses. That is a recidivism rate of 3 per cent, in contrast to Illinois’ three-year recidivism rate of 51 per cent. Thus, the MGT Push program did not vastly change incarceration terms for prisoners, and the rate of recidivism numbers was not unusual; but negative publicity captured the media and the politicians, and the program has been ended.

Where Illinois’ early release programs now stand. By early January, Gov. Quinn had suspended both the electronic monitoring and the MGT Push programs. In mid- January, MGT Push was permanently outlawed by Public Act 096-0860.

This text was adapted from Jean Maclean Snyder's testimony at a legislative hearing on New Directions for the Illinois Department of Corrections, April 26, 2010.