Prisoners frustrated by slow movement of law offering early release opportunity

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Back in January, an amended state law took effect that was designed to address prison overcrowding by broadening opportunities for inmates to shave up to six months off their sentences.

Doubts have emerged about whether the Illinois Department of Corrections is doing enough in the eight months since to carry out the law.

When Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the prison reform group John Howard Association, sought details on how IDOC was implementing the law, she received few answers, Vollen-Katz said. Nor did Injustice Watch, in its separate inquiries, learn any details about how many prisoners have benefited from the new law.

The law expanded eligibility for sentencing credits, giving IDOC discretion to award inmates credits based on the likelihood the prisoner will commit new crimes, the prisoner’s disciplinary record and participation in programs aimed at rehabilitation.

In addition, the law included more measures and guidelines for programming aimed at helping inmates’ reentry into the public.

But when the John Howard Association asked IDOC last month how many prisoners have received discretionary sentencing credits since the law took effect Jan. 8 as well as how many are eligible for the credits, IDOC did not offer a clear answer.

“The IDOC has been working to implement an electronic version of sentencing credits that will improve the consistency of application across the entire corrections system,” responded Nikki Robinson, Chief Public Safety Officer for the IDOC. That new system, Robinson said, is designed to be “more transparent, while accurate and efficient for the utilization by staff and those who are sentenced to the custody of the Illinois Dept. of Corrections.”

Injustice Watch received its own, different answer from IDOC. Lindsey Hess, IDOC media administrator, first said the department “has complied with the statute by expanding the eligibility for sentence credit to offenders who were previously ineligible. An increase in eligible programming has allowed more individuals to earn time off their sentences.”

In a response to follow-up questions, the department declined to detail how many prisoners are considered eligible for the program, and how many have received benefits. Hess responded: “Data is unavailable due to the short length of time the legislation has been in place.”

The John Howard Association said that it has received hundreds of letters from inmates who are frustrated by the lack of information about the system of enhanced credits.

“Creating confusion in a carceral environment is never a good thing,” said Vollen-Katz. “This has definitely created a lot of confusion for inmates. And frankly for staff too. Staff doesn’t have an answer to give them.”

The issue of sentencing credits has long vexed state officials. A previous version of the program was suspended in 2009 by then-Gov. Pat Quinn after reports that some inmates convicted of armed robbery and battery were released after only a few weeks behind bars.

In 2015, after a revised version of the program was reinstated, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed an executive order that created the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform to review the state’s “sentencing structure, sentencing practices, community supervision, and alternatives to incarceration.”

The commission report, released in 2016, included a recommendation to “expand eligibility for programming credits” so that all inmates were “eligible to earn programming credits for successfully completing rehabilitative programming.” The state legislature responded by amending the law on sentencing credit, broadening eligibility, and Rauner signed the law last June, to take effect in January.

Senators on both sides of the aisle supported the bill. “It’s my hope that it would be a start to help correct some of the deficiencies we have in our criminal justice system,” Senator Laura Murphy, D-Des Plaines, told Injustice Watch.

Sen. Michael Connelly, R-Naperville, another sponsor of the bill, lauded Rauner in a statement on his website for passing the bill and enacting a change he saw as necessary. “Criminal justice reform and reducing the state’s prison population is something the Rauner administration has taken very seriously, and it’s a topic that continues to have support from both sides of the aisle.”

Legislators were cautious about criticizing the slow implementation. “I just think that nothing works as quickly as we would like it to but I’m pleased that were starting to at least address decades of inconsistencies …  trying to fix some of those issues,” said Murphy.

She said the law does not require IDOC to report on the program results until next year, adding, “so therefore we have to allow a little leeway for them….” Murphy added that she understood why the slow implementation may leave inmates “anxious.”

John Howard’s Vollen-Katz is less forgiving of IDOC’s implementation of the program.  “Not giving anyone sentencing credits is inconsistent with the point of the law,” she said. “And it’s also bad policy. This [the new bill] is here for a reason.”

That reason, she said, leaves an open question for IDOC officials: “it’s for you to use your discretion. Why aren’t you doing that?”

Emily Hoerner contributed reporting and research.

An accompanying commentary appears here: