Thursday, November 18, 2010

Good Conduct Credit and Fuding a Prison System

In Illinois, the Department of Corrections answers directly to the governor. Thus, by and large, the prison system runs itself. They have the power to create and administer their own rules and procedures with very little oversight.

When I started in this business I was shocked to find out just how fast some people were being released from prison. It's not that I am into long prison sentences. I think there's too many non-violent offenders in prison. But as a citizen that didn't know any better, I was pretty amazed.

For a very long time, a 1 year prison sentence was in reality only 61 days. You could be home in less than 1 year when sentenced to 3 years. Therefore, a 1 year cop-out for a pistol or a little dope was pretty tolerable to defendants facing longer sentences. I have seen so many delivery and possession with intent to deliver cases (normally Class 1 felonies, carrying 4-15 years) reduced to Class 4 simple possession, which has a sentencing range of 1-3 years.

This is the type of deal making I often encounter. Deal making in criminal cases is not unique to Chicago. It's a nation-wide phenomena. Some criminal lawyers in other jurisdictions call a plea deal a settlement. I choose not to, saving the word settlement for civil cases. I call them negotiated plea deals. But it's the same thing. I really dislike a case that from day 1 is headed to a plea deal. But some cases are dogs and have to be dealt.

Typically a case is charged as a very high felony. In my opinion a lot of cases are overcharged, meaning the evidence supporting all elements of the charge is on the weak side. Or at least there's a lot of argument to be made. The State will often dangle the carrot of a reduced  charge in exchange for a plea of guilty. This keeps conviction rates high. The prison system full. And the adult probation department busy.

In other words, this system keeps a lot of people employed while largely preventing the unfortunate defendant from ever getting gainful, legal employment for the rest of their life. Talk about a circle of poverty. But that's for another post.

Earlier this year, a convicted felon who had benefited from the IDOC early release program committed some heinous crime while on parole. The press got wind of IDOC's program and a politically explosive story ran. Everyone ran for cover and the governor's office claimed they didn't know about it. Within a week, the person who ran IDOC resigned but everyone knew he was really sacked.

As part of the Illinois State Bar Association's Criminal Justice Committee, I have been asked to review proposed legislation and vote to oppose or support it. In the past 2 weeks, I have reviewed close to a dozen bills and have supported only a couple. Why? Well, they are largely political and designed to cover politician's asses, and thus a waste.

In the Illinois Criminal code, good conduct credit is described (see 730 ILCS 5/3-6). Even absent the IDOC's rapid release policy (which was not in the statute), most prison sentences are actually half the time given. We have this thing called Day for Day Credit, which means for every day of good conduct, an inmate gets a day knocked off his sentence. This is called good conduct credit. You can also get 60 days knocked off a sentence for earning a GED while in custody.

Here's an example of how this would calculate today: a defendant is sentenced to 2 years in prison for a non-violent crime. When he gets downstate they will immediately subtract the time he spent in the county jail. Let's say that was 6 months. Now the sentence is 18 months. Split that in half, and you're looking at 9 months of real time.

The more violent crimes are served at 85% of the sentence. And murders are 100%.

I never really wondered how IDOC landed on 61 days for a 1 year sentence. It does seem like a strange number since it's odd. But I never asked why it was 61 days. Last week, I might of found out why 61 was the magic number.

I have no source to prove what I was told, and I don't care enough to look for myself. However, it's food for thought. I was told for fiscal purposes, an inmate has to be in the penitentiary system for at least 61 days before IDOC is credited for having him incarcerated.

Credited by whom you might ask? You figure it out. But here are some shocking numbers.

At the close of 2009, IDOC had a prison population of about 45,000. In the same year, IDOC claims it spent $1.1 billion in operating costs. According to IDOC's 2009 Financial Impact Statement, it costs on average about $25,000 per year to keep an inmate incarcerated. This is big money.

Also in 2009, almost the same number of people were paroled as freshly locked up. That seems a bit odd to me. It's awfully convenient. And there's more people locked up for drugs than anything else (20.7%). Murder comes in second at just under 20% and sex crimes a distant 3rd at 10%.

In its October 2010 report to the Illinois legislature, IDOC expects to increase in population at a rate of 3% annually. Thus within 2 years, it's predicted IDOC will have 50,000 inmates. Assume the annual cost per inmate remains the same (it won't), that's an estimated annual budget of $1.25 billion. Compared to $1.1 billion, the increase seems negligible, but in reality it's an increase of $150 million.

I know throwing around numbers in the billions and millions is often hard to grasp. How much money is that? Here's a calculation you might understand. Let's assume you worked a full-time career job from age 25 to 65. That's 40 years.

Assume you have a high paying job and the salary is $150,000 a year for the first 10 years and then increases $25,000 per year every ten years. With these generous salary numbers you would earn $7.5 million before taxes over 40 years. Assume 25% taxes and you're left with $5.6 million. Your lifetime net income would be over 20 times less than the current IDOC annual budget.

It should be clear, Illinois spends a lot of taxpayer money keeping people in prison.

Compare these figures with the 2010 Illinois State Education budget. The 2010 budget is $11 billion with just over $3.5 billion of that coming from the Federal government. According to the Illinois Board of Education, the annual cost per student is just over $10,000.

Therefore, on an annual basis, the state of Illinois spends over 3 times per inmate than public school student. The number is really more staggering if you consider that the majority of public school funding is derived from the local tax base as opposed to state funds.

Only about 80% of Illinois public school students pass the 8th grade reading and math exams. The number plummets to just over 50% at the 11th grade level.

Am I the only one that sees a tremendous problem with these numbers?

Running prisons in the United States is big business. I think I might have written this before, but our country has 5% of the world's population but 25% of its incarcerated adults. Every 1 out of 4 adults locked up in the world is in a U.S. prison.

I think that spending tax payer money should end up bringing about a benefit to the tax payer. That's pretty simple. Ask yourself how you benefit from having so many people sitting in prison. The argument is that it makes society safer. For violent offenders, I agree with this argument. But I think the numbers would show nationwide, non-violent drug offenders make up 20-25% of state prison populations.

In my opinion, drug addiction is the real problem. Anti-drug laws are the reason drug addicts are in prison. Are the laws working? Absolutely not. They are making us spend more money in the long run. We don't need more police officers, we need less people addicted to drugs.

I wish I had the answer. I really do.


  1. Marcus,
    Quinn suspended the awarding of MGT to inmates in 12/2009. God knows if and when it will be resumed. Meantime, to the present, a lot (a very lot) of prosecutors, DA's, and private attorneys continue to advise defendants as if MGT is still being awarded and something the defendant can rely upon to shorten their IDOC stay. Consequently, defendants are accepting plea deals, etc., with the expectation that they will serve less time than they actually will. They and their families don't find out (unless they do independent research on this) otherwise until they get to IDOC, and their families are screwed. How can all these attorneys ignore their responsibility to accurately advise defendants and is there any way to hold them accountable. Most defendants have enough to deal with without this as well

  2. Wow!!! You have taken all the words out of my mouth. I wish more Americans can see what you and I see.


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