The Bureau of Justice Statistics has just made it official: according to its report “Prisoners in 2010,” the number of adult state and federal adult prisoners in the United States decreased for the first time in more than 38 years.

This news is cause for celebration, but Illinois will not be in the party.

In recent years prison reformers, community and civic groups, advocates from across the political spectrum and  corrections professionals have joined to rein in the nation’s unprecedented rate of prison incarceration. A reduction of 9,228 prisoners, just 0.6 percent of the more than 1.6 million in custody, is a small step, but it has symbolic value that many hope will launch further and faster decreases.

Other signs of success are in the data reported by the BJS: In 2010, 25 states decreased their state prison populations. This number is sharply up from a low of nine in 2006.

Twelve states now have lower prison populations than they did five years ago. Other states are on the way to lower populations. New York and New Jersey led the way with a decade long decrease of 13,738 (a drop of 19.6 percent) and 4,777 (a 16 percent decrease) prisoners respectively. Michigan concentrated efforts in the last half of the decade to reduce its prison population by 14.5 percent — 7,464 inmates — just since 2007.

Illinois missed the party for a single reason. In 2010 it added 3,257 prisoners, more than any other state both in numbers and as a percent of its sentenced prisoner population. And it did so, more or less, voluntarily.

In the first nine years of the 2000-2010 decade, Illinois maintained a relatively stable prison population of about 45,000. This was a time when prison populations in other states were increasing by about 13 percent.

Moving in the right direction, state lawmakers passed the Crime Reduction Act of 2009 and related legislation designed to increase the use of community alternatives, revise sentencing laws and implement a rational approach to risk assessment.

Then, at the end of 2009, a combination of sensationalistic and inaccurate news reporting and political opportunism by members of both parties in two election campaigns demonized a misnamed “early release program” that actually ended a delay in awarding credits for good conduct to which inmates were entitled.

The media and political firestorm pushed Gov. Pat Quinn to suspend Meritorious Good Time or “MGT,” a 30-year-old good conduct program introduced and used most extensively by Gov. James Thompson in the late 1970s.

These actions drove up the prison population captured in the BJS report and are causing severe overcrowding, or “warehousing,” documented by the John Howard Association, reported by this paper and the subject of civil rights lawsuits not unlike Brown v. Plata decided against California by the U.S. Supreme Court last May.

But Illinois could still come to the party if it so chooses. Other states have shown that mistakes in corrections policy can be corrected nearly as quickly as they are made.

Mississippi decreased its population by 6.1 percent in two years by overhauling its parole supervision system, something Illinois might consider.

Illinois leaders know what to do. Putting MGT back in place is mechanically simple. The governor should authorize, and the Legislature should step back from interfering with, the director of the Department of Corrections’ implementation of a reasoned good time credit program.

State Reps. Art Turner, Rita Mayfield and Constance Howard are taking steps to see that this is done. They should be supported.

To calm the demons that were loosed during the political campaigns of 2009-2010, the public needs to hear more about the reasons good conduct credits make sense and how they help maintain safe prisons and communities. Fear-mongering and taking political advantage should be out of order.

Until MGT is reinstated, no one will notice the modest reductions in prison populations that may eventually be achieved through the slow process of revising the sentencing code, improving court processes and maintaining re-entry programs and community services in a recession.

Reinstating MGT good conduct credits is a simple, necessary and technically relatively easy first step, one that might get Illinois back into the party and in better standing in 2011.

Malcolm C. Young is director of Prison Reentry Strategies at the Bluhm Legal Clinic, Northwestern School of Law. He is a member of the Illinois Adult Correction Advisory Board, was director of the John Howard Association and founding executive director of The Sentencing Project in Washington, D. C.


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