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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

Parole Illinois: Who are We?

Parole Illinois.  

Who are we? We are a coalition of people inside and outside of prison who are working toward a more just and humane legal system.

We believe in the power of redemption and transformation; and that it is inhumane to order people to spend decades in prison until they die there without any periodic assessment of whether such sentences are necessary for public safety. We therefore stand against policies that sentence people to death by incarceration, whether that be life-without-parole or excruciatingly long sentences that people cannot outlive.

We recognize that excessive sentencing laws have piled up in Illinois, to the point that few people understand them and thousands of people are now required to die behind bars. We also recognize that each of these problematic sentencing laws needs to be repealed. And we recognize that each ameliorative law needs to be applied retroactively. However, we don’t believe that we can wait to establish a fair parole system until each of those battles are won individually, because many people will die behind bars in the meantime.

Therefore, our first course of action is to bring to Illinois a fair, inclusive, and retroactive system of Earned Discretionary Release. We are building a grassroots movement and working with legislators to promote parole legislation that is inclusive and that prioritizes rehabilitation and return to full citizenship. In addition, this legislation must distinguish the initial trial (which focuses on responsibility for the crime) from the parole hearing, which should focus on a person’s level of rehabilitation and current risk to public safety.

We believe that such a system of discretionary release would present the most expeditious way for the many over-incarcerated and wrongly incarcerated men and women in Illinois to obtain their freedom. We don’t take this lightly. We are prepared to devote substantial effort to establishing a fair and inclusive parole system and maintaining a fair and effective parole board.

We seek to mobilize people behind the wall as well as activists and loved ones of incarcerated individuals to fight for a fair and inclusive system of discretionary release and, more broadly, for a more just and humane legal system.

 

If you are on the inside and want to get involved in the campaign for a fair and inclusive parole system, send your name and address to the PO Box below and indicate that you would like the Parole Illinois campaign packet for people on the inside. We will be sending out the packets in January or February.

Parole Illinois
601 S. California Ave, Chicago, IL  60612

We regret that we do not have the staff to respond to individual queries at this address. However, your family and friends on the outside can email us at ParoleIllinois.org, check out our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/ParoleIllinois/ and receive regular email updates when they sign our support form: https://paroleillinois.org/support-us/

Letter from insiders to friends and family

Dear Friends and Family,

We are sending this letter to all of you who have stuck by us throughout this difficult incarceration. We understand that we are not the only ones doing time; that our friends and family are suffering both visible and hidden costs due to my incarceration; and that our family is being harmed emotionally, physically, and financially.

Which makes it all that much harder to ask anything more of you all and we truly regret that we have to. However, without your help, we will die in here. It’s as simple as that. We know you wish that we could come home immediately. So do we. But we need you to do more than wish for it: and so do we. We need you to help us fight to come home. Even if it is just a commitment to spend half of an hour of each week fighting to reinstate parole in Illinois.

In exchange for that half hour of your week, we will make this promise to you – we will spend time every day in that same fight. Plus, we will simultaneously work towards my own rehabilitation, so that, in the event that we are successful and parole returns to Illinois, we will be prepared to make the best case possible for my release.

We will fight to return to our family and community; to be there for both upon release. Will you fight with us?

Here are a few simple things you can do to get started.

  • Get involved in the campaign to bring an unbiased, retroactive parole system to Illinois by:
  1. “liking” the Parole Illinois Facebook page at:  https://www.facebook.com/ParoleIllinois/
  2. signing the petition in support of Parole Illinois’ proposed legislation for parole at https://paroleillinois.org/support-us/ (This also puts you on the Parole Illinois email list.)
  3. responding to campaign activities sent to you through the Parole Illinois email list. (If you’d also like to help us coordinate campaign events, you can contact us at: paroleillinois@gmail.com )

and

  • Identify your district’s Illinois Senator and Representative by going to https://www.illinoispolicy.org/maps/ , typing in your address, and writing down their contact information. Be prepared to contact them when Parole Illinois organizes phone blitzes and lobbying events.

Thank you for your support!

Sincerely,

The 6,226 Illinoisans sentenced to die in prison

Testimony for the Nov 8 House/Senate Hearing on Parole, by Shari Stone-Mediatore

My name is Shari Stone-Mediatore. I was born in Chicago and grew up in Highland Park, Illinois.  And I am currently a Professor of Philosophy at Ohio Wesleyan University.

I’ve taught philosophy to men and women convicted of violent crimes. I’ve also supported several men with life and de-facto life sentences in Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan in their efforts to pursue education, apply for scholarships, publish their writing, and participate in productive activities, such as art and essays contests. I’ve been amazed by these individuals and what I’ve learned from them.

One thing I’ve learned is that there is no such “violent offender” or “murderer.” Those categories regulate our legal system. And they sometimes take on a life of their own in our imaginations. But the people convicted of violent crimes are each unique individuals with their own life stories, strengths and weaknesses.

I’m here today because I fear that our criminal-justice policy has followed the phantoms of our imagination at the expense of this human reality.

The incarcerated individuals with whom I’ve had the privilege to work have struggled against tremendous obstacles to educate themselves and — even when their own chances for return to free society looked grim — to contribute to social aims larger than themselves.

When I’m having a bad day, I often motivate myself to pick myself up and focus on positive goals by thinking about, for instance,

Joseph Dole writing an essay on justice to publish in an academic philosophy journal, while sitting on the cement floor of a barren cell.

I also think of Howard Keller using his limited funds to sponsor an essay contest for fellow inmates.

I also think of Mike Simmons, who has been moved to pursue his education and strive to be the best person he can by the wish of his victim’s mother that one day he be rehabilitated and rejoin the community. (Mike’s own mom couldn’t be here today due to work obligations; but she insisted that I stay in her home last night.)

I also think of  Lacino Hamilton, who, despite his confinement to virtual constant lockdown conditions, has reminded me of the need to maintain dialogue with those from whom I’ve been alienated.  As Lacino put it in a recent letter:

“The adversary, ‘Us v. Them’ model encourages us to see those [with whom] we have disagreements…as opponents and not collaborators. It prevents us from positioning ourselves to hear others’ claims with any openness or willingness that would enable us to see how their [concerns] are related to our own….

…If there was one thing I could change about prison, it would be more dialogue between jailer and jailed.” 

Statistics tell us that – contrary to popular perceptions — people convicted of violent crimes have the lowest recidivism rates.  This may be because many such people never actually committed the violent crime of which they were convicted: Some have been wrongly convicted and many have been convicted under laws of accountability, which pin violent convictions on people who were only indirectly involved in the crime.

In addition, however, having worked with many people convicted of violent crimes, I now understand how people who have struggled with all-too-human failings can face their own flaws and use their regret as a catalyst to improve their lives and give back to society.

Parole would give these people who have worked so hard to repair their lives something to hope for; a goal to motivate them to develop their best potential.

To borrow a metaphor from incarcerated writer Joseph Dole, parole would provide a “safety valve” for the many men and women in this state who are irrationally locked up for decades beyond the time they pose any threat. These men and women have far too much to offer to allow a stranglehold of irrational policies to prevent them from ever even having a chance to rejoin their families and communities.

Do we lock these people up for the rest of the rest of their lives and forget about them as they pile up in geriatric prisons? Or do we face them as human beings and give them fair opportunities to present themselves before a parole board?