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Illinois Seeks to Reduce Prison Overcrowding

Illinois lawmakers are once again debating a bill that could help ease the state's bursting prison population at a time when there are plans to close several correctional facilities.

But it may take some work to convince Gov. Pat Quinn to go along with the plan in reintroducing a program that he suspended two years ago due to problems surrounding it.

In 2010 Quinn put on hold the state's Meritorious Good Time program (MGT) which reduced the sentences for inmates considered non-violent. Quinn pulled it after he learned that more than 1,000 inmates did not serve the required minimum of 60 days and committed more crimes once back on the streets.

But some saw it as an election year political move.

Since that time, more than 4,000 inmates have been added to the ranks, pushing Illinois' total prison population to 49,000. The state's prison system is designed to handle a mere 33,700.

Some lawmakers and prison advocates are pushing Quinn to reinstate the MGT program to ease overcrowding and making unhealthy living conditions even worse.

"The decision to suspend Meritorious Good Time was the result of an election cycle political firestorm. Good time credits became widely and inaccurately described ... became the ammunition for political attacks between Illinois candidates and branches of government in 2009 and 2010," Malcolm Young, director of prison re-entry strategies at Northwestern University law school's Bluhm Legal Clinic, told an Illinois House Criminal Law Committee meeting in downtown Chicago on Wednesday.

Young supports passage of House Bill 3899 that would reinstate MGT. Chicago Democratic State Rep. Arthur Turner introduced the bill.

"It provides a reasoned, manageable, beneficial framework or approach to the challenge of implementing the good conduct program. It's an approach that would alleviate today's prison crowding crisis and accomplish other public policy goals," Young said.

Quinn's deputy chief of staff, Toni Irving, told the House committee that the old MGT law is no longer valid.

"The statute is outdated and at the time the statute was created, certain offenses that we now consider violent, i.e. DUI, can't be excluded," Irving said. "So, MGT as it currently exists isn't really a sound policy. It would require something brand new."

Irving added that Quinn is reviewing a similar bill introduced in the state Senate (SB2621) but is so far uncommitted to supporting it.

"We are certainly interested in working with the Legislature in making sure that we have a collaborative effort. I think it's super important that the legislature be very involved in this process since it's the legislature also determines the budget for the Department of Corrections and often times these things are linked to programs that are then defunded in the process," Irving said. "There has to be a connection between those two."

The push for early release of certain prisoners will grow if Quinn's plans to shut as many as 14 state juvenile prisons, several adult transition centers and a super max prison to save money as the state addresses budget issues.

(AP Photo/Seth Perlman,File)