Parole Illinois Response to HB 3214

February 28, 2019

Dear Representative Mayfield,

We appreciate your efforts to work with Parole Illinois toward the objective of bringing a fair parole system to our state. You have been a strong force for social justice, and we hope that we can work with you on passing a fair parole bill.

As you know, we support an inclusive bill that allows every person an opportunity (after a reasonable period of incarceration) to demonstrate their level of rehabilitation. This does not mean that every person will get out. It does mean, however, that no person will be locked up and forgotten about, without at least having the chance to demonstrate before a parole board their readiness to rejoin society.

Accordingly, a parole system should not focus on the person’s original crime but the person’s level of rehabilitation and current risk to public safety. Especially in the context of Illinois’ history of criminal-legal corruption, our excessively long sentences and our bloated prison population, we need a parole system that does not continually define people by a past crime conviction but evaluates incarcerated individuals in terms of their current risk to public safety.

Excluding people from parole eligibility based on the crime for which they were convicted–even if the conviction was for multiple murders or sex-crimes–is problematic for several additional reasons.

First, as you know, many people have been found guilty for multiple murders and sex crimes under a theory of accountability. (Accountability is not an inchoate offense, an element of the offense, or an offense on its own. The Illinois courts have deemed it simply a mechanism for conviction.) People found guilty based on a theory of accountability did not actually commit the crime for which they have been convicted.

Second, many of the people convicted of multiple murders and sex-crimes have been wrongly convicted. This has been evidenced by the numerous people already exonerated for these categories of crime. Experts believe that those exonerations were just the tip of the iceberg and that many more innocent people remain wrongly incarcerated for such crimes. These wrongful convictions are often due to faulty eyewitness/victim testimony, coerced statements, or other official misconduct by police and prosecutors. Parole can serve as a safety valve for people who have been wrongly convicted under these circumstances, but who lack the resources to prove their innocence.

Third, and perhaps most importantly to the matter of parole, categories of crime conviction tell us little about a person’s growth in prison and current risk to public safety. Categories of crime conviction may even mislead evaluation of a person. For instance, the category “sex-offender” is racially charged, leading evaluators to uncritically identify men of color with this label. And contrary to popular myths about “violent-offenders” and “sex-offenders,” studies of recidivism rates show that people who have been convicted of murder and sex-offenses have the lowest recidivism rates.

Do we want a parole system that continues to judge people by problematic labels? Or a parole system that focuses on rehabilitation and evaluates people in terms of who they are at present?

At the Stateville debate, you were impressed with the men who presented. You saw that these men were hardly “the worst of the worst,” who should be locked up forever, but were people who had worked hard to educate and improve themselves and had much to contribute to our communities. They inspired you to sponsor parole legislation based on their proposal. You asked them about their “red-lines.” Their first response was: “No exclusions; everyone gets a chance.” They stressed article 1 section 11 of the Illinois Constitution, which says that the goal of imprisonment is to return people to useful citizenship. Have you forgotten about this?

We understand concerns about child predators getting out; however, existing laws already address this concern. Even if the parole board granted parole to someone with such a crime (which is unlikely), that person would be civilly committed under our civil commitment laws, which are already incorporated into our parole laws.

We also offer some political considerations:

By excluding from parole eligibility large numbers of people, the present bill diminishes the support that can be mobilized for the bill and generates dissension among potential supporters. We believe that such negative effects of the exemptions would hinder the parole bill more than any blowback that opponents may present to a more fair and inclusive bill.

We understand that a more inclusive bill will be more controversial; however, we believe that any difficulties that arise from such controversy will be outweighed by the greater grassroots support that we will mobilize for a good bill. Before you decide that a more inclusive bill won’t pass, can you give us an opportunity to build this support? Our inclusive bill already has the support of BYP 100, the Illinois chapter of the ACLU, Soapbox Productions, Chicago Votes, Students Against Incarceration, the Prison Neighborhood Art Project, the Let us Breathe Collective, the Uptown People’s Law Center, Love and Protect, Community Control of the Chicago Police (CPAC), Stateville Speaks, 57th St. Meeting of Friends, Families United to End LWOP (FUEL), Willow Creek Community Church, Matters in the Heart Inc., Praxs Center, Campaign for a Drug-Free Westside, Inc., National Incarcerated Veterans Network USA.

Finally, we are reminded of Reverend Martin Luther King’s words, “the time is always ripe to do right.” We hope that you will sponsor a parole bill that does not compromise what is right.

Sincerely,

The Stateville Debate Team and Parole Illinois