Testimony for the Nov 8 Joint House/Senate Hearing on Parole, by Sarah Ross

Dear Members of the IL General Assembly,

Please accept this letter as my support for re-introducing parole in IL.

For the last 13 years I have taught classes in IL state prisons through both state-contracted community colleges and through a volunteer based non-profit, Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project. For the last 20 years I have worked with people impacted by the criminal justice system as survivors and offenders through my work serving survivors of domestic violence, supervising volunteers at a books to prisoner organization, volunteering alongside formerly incarcerated people in communities in art and education organizations.

Over this time, I have met men in prison who have served, collectively, thousands of years of time. These men are in my classes because they seek an education they never got in the free world; they want to be a student alongside a child or family member going to school outside of prison; or they want to improve their skills to open opportunities that are different from what they had access to before coming to prison. In each case, the men are actively seeking out the ‘corrections’ in the correctional center, and often against the odds from staff and lack of programs. Men sign up for every religious activity, every study group, every job position with the hopes, of what one man in prison once told me, of “becoming a better man”. I’ve known men to self-organize study groups, vocabulary clubs and more in prison. Yet, the men I have met over all this time are “better”. That is to say that they are actively and positively engaged in their community both in prison and often via phone or letters, outside of prison. They are not the same person they were 10, 15 or 25 years ago when they committed a crime. They, like me, learn from mistakes, even grave ones. They change over time, take advantage of new opportunities, mature and grow as we all do.

Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project offers 14-week arts and humanities college-level classes to people at Stateville prison on a semester schedule. We work with 75 students per semester, yet some 160 men apply each time. We now partner with Northeastern Illinois University to support a bachelor’s degree program and 8 men will matriculate this year with a degree. This work is critical because it is one of many things people in prison do to prepare themselves for life beyond prison, but for so many, this life is uncertain because their sentences are indefinite, or 80 years, or otherwise too long to survive.

When I first started teaching at Stateville I was struck by the differences in length of sentence between the students there, and the last prison I where I had taught, Danville CC. At Danville, men were certainly serving long prison terms but had out-dates. They were in classes—academic and vocational—with a plan for a future. They often committed the same class and type crimes as men at Stateville, but might have had access to lawyer, or they were sentenced in a different county, or were sentenced before the Truth-in-Sentencing legislation took effect. These men expressed remorse for the harms they caused and were often trying to grapple with the violence and traumas that they had caused and violence they survived before coming to prison (as so many people in prison are both survivors and perpetrators of harm). At Stateville, I met the same men, with the same crimes, with the same goals for education and vocation and the same remorse for the harms that they caused. Yet, these men were functionally given the death penalty, serving ‘death by incarceration’.

Recent studies from the Urban Institute and the Sentencing Project show an all-time high in the sentencing of people to life and long sentences, despite the rate of violent crime falling. The broad use of long term and life sentences has been claimed to be used only in the most egregious cases, for the ‘worst of the worst’, yet the increase in sentences tells us this is not true. Across the nation some 170,000 people have been sentenced to life for non-violent crimes. This is at odds with IL’s stated goals of reducing incarceration and the costs, both financially and socially, to the state. Finally, the racial dimensions of long-term sentencing in the state is staggering. Some 68% of the people serving life and long sentences in IL are Black. This is a clear indication of a racially driven system of punishment.

The studies also point out important factors that must be acknowledged when considering a parole system in IL. The Sentencing Project’s Still Life study states:

Yet there are diminishing benefits of high levels of incarceration on public safety. A prominent reason is that the impulse to engage in crime, including violent crime, is highly correlated with age,8) and by one’s early 40s even those identified as the most chronic “career criminals” have tapered off considerably.9) Lifelong imprisonment with limited or no chance for review only serves a retributive purpose and is often counterproductive for purposes of crime control….. empirical evidence that shows diminishing public safety benefits associated with incarceration beyond a certain point. Some also reason that the expansive and somewhat arbitrary use of imprisonment weakens its general deterrence value…..

Further, the Alliance for Safety and Justice’s study IL Crime Victim’s Voices tell us that:

7 in 10 victims prefer shorter prison sentences and spending more on prevention and rehabilitation programs to prison sentences that keep people in prison for as long as possible.

And

6 in 10 victims prefer alternatives to prison such as rehabilitation, mental health treatment and drug treatment to putting people in prison.

A fair and balanced parole system in IL is sorely needed to reverse some of the harms created by locking up people for life. We know that longer sentences do not prevent or deter crime. We know that an effective and fair parole systems is far less costly than the millions of dollars required to keep people in prison for decades, especially as they age. We also know that IL is out of step with other states are actively reducing their prison populations. Most recently the Lieutenant Governor of New York, Kathy Hochul, told members of the Democratic Club “Life without parole is inherently inhumane.”

Today I know many men who are out of prison: they have done their time (again, often for the same crime as a man at Stateville but sentenced before Truth in Sentencing or other mandatory minimums); they were wrongfully convicted; and now some men who were JLWOPs and they have been resentenced under the famous Miller v. Alabama case. These people are highly valued members of their communities, they hold jobs, despite the challenges of getting a job with a record, that include youth mentor, tax preparer, community engagement specialist, fork-lift driver, owner of a fitness center and more. Further, I know many others that are now are enrolled in bachelors and master’s degree programs. Importantly, they are again an active father, sibling and care-taker of now-elderly parents. They are tax-payers and full contributors to our community.

Illinois is behind in prison reform efforts. Our state is financially precarious and small fixes to the system won’t do. Let’s take a bold step in the right direction by listening to crime victims, people in prison and communities where people will return home. We must restore justice and second chances to our criminal legal system by making a fair and just pathway out of prison. A rigorous parole board, with educated and diverse members, is one important step in making overdue and needed changes in IL.

Sincerely,

Sarah Ross

Assistant Professor of Art Education

Co-Director, Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project

 

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