Nationwide prison populations have been declining for two years, but Illinois the prison population has soared instead.

A report by Malcolm Young, director of prison reentry strategies at a Northwestern University law school legal clinic, says the increase here was sparked by inaccurate news reports and political opportunism.

While prison populations declined 1.3 percent in 2010, according to federal statistics, Illinois saw a 7.2 percent increase.

Young says some states facing budget problems — like Michigan, New Jersey and New York — have distinguished themselves by consistently decreasing their prisoner populations over the last decade.

In Illinois, a bipartisan majority of state lawmakers agreed to a policy of further restraining the state’s use of prisons in 2009.

But what Young calls inaccurate news reports and political opportunism by members of both parties pushed Gov. Pat Quinn to suspend Meritorious Good Time, a 30-year-old good conduct program through which about 24,000 prisoners were released on average 135 days before the end of their terms.

“Suspending MGT drove up the prison population,” Young said, “causing the kind of severe overcrowding or ‘warehousing’ that occurred in California prisons in the run-up to last May’s U.S. Supreme Court case that ordered a population reduction.”

“According to conventional wisdom, depressed state economies would compel states to take the steps necessary to reduce prison incarceration, and the public would support reductions in prison populations in favor of lower public expenditures and reduced taxes,” Young said.

“What actually happened suggests a disconnect rather than a causal connection between policymaker’s fiscal concerns and their willingness to take effective steps to reduce incarceration.”

Across the country about 7.1 million people, or one in 33 adults, are currently under the supervision of adult correctional authorities.

The full report is available online.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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