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posted: 1/13/2010 12:01 AM

House OKs minimum prison term, release notice

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SPRINGFIELD -- Illinois criminals should serve at least 60 days in prison before they are allowed to get out early, the House decreed Tuesday in response to a secret prisoner release program under Gov. Pat Quinn.

Lawmakers voted 111-1 to answer the practice that freed more than 1,700 inmates weeks earlier than they would have normally gotten out. Many had committed violent crimes and some spent as little as three weeks total time behind bars.

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Called "MGT Push," the Corrections Department had dropped a long-standing, informal requirement that everyone serve at least 61 days before being awarded good-conduct credit off their sentences.

The "meritorious good time" benefit is solely at the discretion of the Corrections director. Under MGT Push, authorities were indiscriminately giving inmates up to six months time off their sentences as soon as they got to prison.

Rep. Emily McAsey, D-Lockport, said inmates should be in prison long enough for authorities to observe their behavior and the Corrections director should justify on paper why they should get good-time off.

"We have seen meritorious good time credit awarded to individuals instantaneously with them walking through the doors of the Department of Corrections," McAsey said. "There's no entitlement to the award of meritorious good time credit."

McAsey's legislation also would require Corrections to give local prosecutors 14 days notice that an inmate is going to be released early. Current law obligates the department to give only "reasonable" notice.

The proposal mimics actions the Democratic governor took after The Associated Press reported on the unpublicized program in mid-December. Quinn immediately suspended the practice. On Dec. 30, he reinstated the two-month minimum stay and announced a two-week heads up to prosecutors.

A spokeswoman said Quinn asked the General Assembly to act on the legislation based on recommendations made late last month by a former appellate judge the governor appointed to study meritorious good time issues.

Quinn first said he knew about "MGT Push" and that it was well-advertised. Later, he said he was not told about it and that Corrections Director Michael Randle had made a "big mistake" in proceeding with it. Quinn has not elaborated on the sequence of events.

Rep. Bill Black, R-Danville -- the lone "no" vote on the measure -- said prison sentences mean little with so much good time applied. Even after 60 days, he said it's impossible to tell whether an inmate deserves that much time off.

"If you're sentenced to a year in prison, you ought to serve a year in prison, not 60 days," Black said. "We have how many people walking the streets who were released under a program that we don't know who did or who did not know about? Meritorious good time, my foot."

Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Westchester, said notice to prosecutors is meaningless if they are not allowed to object to an inmate's early discharge.

The bill moves to the Senate.

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