July 01, 2012
Early release program may cause more inmates to take GED
By: Edith Brady-Lunnyl
More McLean County Jail inmates may be interested in educational programs offered at the jail as a result of new legislation that restores a program for early release of Illinois inmates.
Gov. Pat Quinn has signed legislation to return good conduct credits of up to 180 days for nonviolent prisoners who serve at least 60 days in the Department of Corrections. The program, formerly known as Meritorious Good Time, was halted by the governor in 2009 after a controversy erupted over an adjustment to the program that gave some offenders 60 days credit when they entered prison.
A provision added to the overhauled legislation allows inmates to receive credit for programs they complete in the county jail before they are moved into the state prison system. In McLean County, that could translate to more defendants signing up for GED and life skills classes, said Sheriff Mike Emery.
“We expect to see a moderate increase in attendance among those being sentenced to prison,” said Emery.
Since January 2011, 27 jail inmates completed their high school equivalency certificates and another six are waiting for test results. Thirty-seven inmates have finished the eight-week life skills course that covers topics people in jail may have missed out on, such as basic computer skills, how to complete a job application, to prepare for an interview and how to balance a checkbook.
“If we can fill the classes with people who want to complete the GED program, it’s great. This new provision gives them an incentive to participate in educational programs,” said Emery.
The programs are open to all male and female inmates, including the majority who will be released without going to a state prison. Funding for the GED instructors from Heartland Community College comes from the county’s general fund and inmate commissary money cover expenses for the life skills program taught by jail staff.
Prison reform advocates are applauding the return of good conduct credits as a first step in addressing serious overcrowding issues that have steadily worsened since 2009. A prison system designed to hold 34,000 prisoners has swollen to 48,000 since the end of MGT.
“It’s not the silver bullet that solves the entire problem of overcrowding, but it’s really, really important,” said John Maki, director of the John Howard Association, a Chicago-based prison watchdog organization that has raised serious concerns about deplorable conditions in some state prisons .
As the prison population decreases, corrections staff may be able to turn its attention back to reform measures that Maki thinks were derailed with the pressure of dealing with 4,000 additional inmates.
“We’ve done this before. Illinois is able to find what’s safe, what will work and implement measures with accountability and transparency,” said Maki. Redeploy Illinois, a program to divert juvenile offenders from IDOC by providing services in their communities, is among those programs put in place three years ago.
How prison officials implement the new version of good conduct credit is important, noted Malcolm Young, director of the Program for Prison Reentry Strategies at the Northwestern School of Law’s Bluhm Legal Clinic.
“To have gotten past this log jam is a good thing. There’s hope for some relief to overcrowding. What happens next though, is important: revisiting sentencing policies; implementing Redeploy Illinois and other initiatives to sensibly punish law breakers; and for longer term and more serious prisoners, an array of programs and services that do make a difference,” said Young.