7 vs. 61 – Risk Elimination, Fear Mongering, Victimization, and the Press

Risk EliminationWith all the press on the Meritorious Good Time Push (MGT) program that was just recently halted by Governor Quinn there has been no discussion about what purpose is really served by incarcerating someone for 61 days rather than just 7?  The reporting makes you think that the individuals who recidivated would not have done so if they served the entire 61 days.  The media has completely failed to make a fact-based argument or analysis in this regard.  It is defending a position that would have altered who was victimized, not eliminated the victimization from ever taking place.

Recidivism & Altering Victimization

Among the incarcerated population there is fairly consistent research on the percentage of individuals that will recidivate and find themselves back in prison.  The research is not capable of determining which specific individuals out of a given population will re-offend and thus we are powerless, for the most part, to use incarceration as a vehicle to prohibit future crimes based on fact-based knowledge.  This leaves our democracy with little choice but to create laws that include punishments associated with specific crimes and release the individual after they have served their sentence.  Despite the views articulated in the media, and for the most part by the public as well, there is no crystal ball that allows the authorities to predetermine who will recidivate.  Unfortunately, the problematic notion that authorities should be able to determine who will and who will not recidivate is often motivated by the race of the incarcerated individual.

The press is all a flutter over the fact that some of the individuals released under the MGT program committed new offenses after their release from the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC).  The reporting on the issue leads the reader to believe that if only these individuals had not been let out after serving 7 days rather than the 61 days that was mandatory they would never have reoffended.  The media has presented no evidence to demonstrate this.  It’s true that if the re-offender had not been released until after serving the mandatory 61 days in state prison they would not have been able to victimize the specific individuals that they did.  However, even if the re-offender had served the full 61 days behind bars, it is more than likely that a victimization would have still taken place resulting in a different victim, not an elimination of the new crime from ever taking place.  The question is: would the extra 54 days in state prison have altered their propensity to commit a violent crime?  If it only delayed the crime from taking place then the net result of the full incarceration would have just altered who was victimized.  Should our incarceration policies simply be based on altering who is victimized and when?

Risk Elimination & Fear Mongering

The criminal justice system balances risk verse cost on a daily basis.  This simple analysis helps authorities determine how many police officers a city should have on its force.  They balance the relative risk of a crime taking place verse the number of officers that are needed to keep this risk at a sufficiently low level.  No public safety agency can completely eliminate risk and no community can afford to spend the resources necessary to attempt to do it.  To do so would be very poor public policy.

The fact that this would be bad public policy has not stopped this topic from coming up in the ongoing gubernatorial campaign.  One specific ad from Democrat Dan Hynes details that 1700 “violent criminals” were released under the MGT program.  Really, all of the 1700 were violent criminals?  Just how did Hynes confirm this?  Also, how do they define violent criminal?  If someone had committed a violent crime years ago gets picked up for a pot possession charge and gets sent back to prison for a period of time are we to consider that individual a violent criminal?

Without the answers to these question the Hynes ad is nothing more than political grandstanding and truly reprehensible.  For there to be sound fiscal improvements to the state budget there is no doubt that reforms to our incarceration and sentencing policies are necessary.   Am I a supporter of the level of secrecy that was involved in the MGT program?  No.  I find the secrecy behind this practice just as reprehensible as Hynes’ ad.  One wrong does not excuse another; especially when it is nothing more than fear mongering.

Author: Tracy SiskaTracy Siska is the Founder and Executive Director of the Chicago Justice Project.
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