Parole Reform White Paper

Reforms to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board: Qualifications and Duties

Sarah Aagard, Rosalind Dillon, Joseph Dole, & Raul Dorado

 

INTRODUCTION

 

In 1977, Illinois ended an 80-year tradition in criminal justice by removing the opportunity for parole. [1]  Now, there are over 5,500 prisoners in Illinois serving life sentences or de facto life sentences. [2] Most of them will die in prison.

The proportionate penalties clause of the Illinois Constitution provides that: “All penalties shall be determined both according to the seriousness of the offense and with the objective of restoring the offender to useful citizenship.” [3] Parole is meant to provide incarcerated people the opportunity to show that their time served has reached this objective—that they have been restored to useful citizenship—and to help them reintegrate into society. The Illinois Prisoner Review Board (“Board”) is an independent state agency that has significant power that impacts the release dates of many people within the Illinois Department of Corrections (“IDOC”). As it stands, it is nearly impossible for a person in the custody of IDOC to be paroled.

There is reason to believe that a reinstatement of discretionary parole for adults will eventually prevail in Illinois. Just this term House Bill 531, a bill to create parole opportunities for juveniles who are under the age of 21 at the time of the offense, passed the Illinois General Assembly with a 67 to 41 vote. [4] The import of HB 531 for those currently serving sentences in Illinois, who notably will not benefit from the bill, is evidence that criminal justice reform is trending towards a reinstatement of parole. With this trend, there is a need now even more than before for a fair and competent Board to make paroling decisions. Even without a reinstatement of discretionary parole for adults, there remains a wide swath of current prisoners affected by Board decisions, and, if the governor signs HB 531 into law, there will be a number of people incarcerated in the future whose fate will fall into the hands of the Board.

THE PROBLEM

The establishment and appointment of the Board is governed by 730 ILCS 5/3-3-1 (“Section 3-3-1”). Section 3-3-1(a) delineates the authority of the Board. Since the amendatory Act of 1977, which transformed Illinois into a determinate sentencing regime, the Board has paroling authority over incarcerated people under the pre-1978 sentencing law; sets the conditions that everyone must follow after release from incarceration; and determines whether those who violate conditions of release should be reincarcerated. [5] The Board also holds hearings to determine whether good conduct credits should be revoked, or whether lost good conduct credits should be restored—decisions which inevitably impact a person’s date of release. [6] Finally, the Board makes executive clemency recommendations to the Governor. [7] Section 3-3-1(b) describes the appointment process and qualifications for the Board members:

 

  • The Board shall consist of 15 persons appointed by the Governor by and with the advice and consent of the Senate. One member of the Board shall be designated by the Governor to be Chairman and shall serve as Chairman at the pleasure of the Governor. The members of the Board shall have had at least 5 years of actual experience in the fields of penology, corrections work, law enforcement, sociology, law, education, social work, medicine, psychology, other behavioral sciences, or a combination thereof. At least 6 members so appointed must have had at least 3 years experience in the field of juvenile matters. No more than 8 Board members may be members of the same political party. [8]

Despite the illusion of comprehensiveness, Section 3-3-1(b) has not resulted in a diverse and fair board.

The powers and duties of the Board are covered in 730 ILCS 5/3-3-2 (“Section 3-3-2”). Most of the provisions outline the scenarios for which the Board will schedule a hearing. Almost all types of hearings require “a panel of at least 3 members” of the Board to participate. [9] There is a notable exception, though, for the main group of people who currently have the opportunity to be considered for parole:

  • [T]he decision to parole and the conditions of parole for all prisoners who were sentenced for first degree murder or who received a minimum sentence of 20 years or more under the law in effect prior to February 1, 1978 shall be determined by a majority vote of the Prisoner Review Board. [10]

 

As detailed below, there are serious consequences to the en banc requirement for some parole hearings. The provision impacts all the people who are currently eligible for parole and still incarcerated within the IDOC. Additionally, the majority vote requirement of 8 out of 15 members does not change when a Board member is absent, and an absence counts as a “no” vote. [11]

 

Additionally, there is a glaring absence in the duties of the Board: there is no requirement to stay up-to-date on criminal justice issues. Board membership is a full-time, salaried position that handles issues in an area that is constantly changed through new research, initiatives, and strategies for rehabilitation and re-entry. One such area is the development of risk assessment tools that help trained staff members estimate the likelihood that a person up for parole will recidivate, based on dozens of factors. [12] Board members then use these risk scores as a factor in their parole-making decisions. [13] Because these tools are still new, and because nobody can predict the future perfectly, strong safeguards need to be in place to prevent the tool from suggesting the wrong level of supervision or calculating an incorrect score. [14] These safeguards include annual audits to the risk assessment tool, a parole client’s right to know their risk assessment score, and in that same vein, a right to appeal the Board’s denial of parole if it conflicts with the risk score’s recommendation.

 

Currently, a person who is denied parole cannot appeal the Board’s decision to the Illinois courts under any circumstance. The only recourse is to petition for rehearing based on extraordinary circumstances or wait up to five years for the next parole date.  However, given the undeniable impact of an adverse parole decision on a parole client’s life and continued incarceration, a right to appeal under certain circumstances is necessary and just. [15]

 

The major shortcomings of 3-3-1 and 3-3-2—specifically that they have led to the creation of a Board and parole system that has made it nearly impossible for people to show they have been reformed—are clearly evinced by recent data on the voting record of the Board.

 

A 2018 report by Injustice Watch demonstrates just how difficult it really is for someone to get paroled in Illinois, especially given that only six current board members discussed by Injustice Watch vote in favor of an inmate more than 15% of the time.

Illinois Parole Board Voting Record

The above graph shows votes of all cases before the board from January 2013 to June 2018. The total cases before each member vary depending on their amount of time on the board. Below is a chart with a more nuanced breakdown of the voting record of each Board member. [16]

Member Prior Careers # of Cases Votes in Favor of Inmate Votes Against Inmate Recusals Absent
Edith Crigler Social worker 377 31.6% 65.5% 0% 2.9%
Craig Findley Businessman; State rep 377 27.6% 65.8% 0% 6.6%
D. Wayne Dunn School guidance director; Youth detention mental health administrator 191 21.5% 69.6% 0% 8.9%
Arthur Mae Perkins Teacher; Principle 191 20.9% 73.8% 0.5% 4.7%
Virginia Martinez Attorney; Public policy analyst 82 20.7% 79.3% 0% 0%
Vonetta Harris Social worker; Educational counselor 310 19.4% 74.8% 3.5% 2.3%
Salvador Diaz Police officer; Social worker; Probation officer 377 11.4% 82.8% 1.1% 4.8%
Donald Shelton Police officer 377 10.9% 89.1% 0% 0%
Ellen Johnson Parole officer 82 9.8% 90.2% 0% 0%
Ken Tupy Prosecutor; PRB legal counsel 109 4.6% 91.7% 0% 3.7%
William Norton Attorney; Prosecutor; Judge 377 1.3% 93.6% 0.8% 4.2%
Peter Fisher Police officer; Chief of police 191 0.5% 83.8% 0% 15.7%

 

There is a growing scientific consensus that prosecutors “have cognitive biases—not as a result of bad faith, but out of what we know to be common human development—that may make it hard for them to see beyond short-term law enforcement interests in winning cases and give full measure to competing interests.” [17] The job of prosecutors is to hold individuals accountable for crimes—they do not move up the professional ladder by refusing to prosecute, they do so by winning. This will-to-win can create cognitive biases, even if the prosecutor is well-intentioned. [18] These biases might make prosecutors reluctant to believe that the life sentences they worked to achieve were not necessary to public safety, making prosecutors uniquely ill-equipped to make unbiased paroling decisions. [19] The same can be said of police officers. [20] No police officer rises through the ranks by not “getting the bad guys.” The biases are similar, and the result is particularly salient in the voting record of the Board. This is against the mandate of the Illinois Constitution that sentences should be implemented with “the objective of restoring the offender to useful citizenship.” [21] The inadequacies in 3-3-1 and 3-3-2 have allowed prosecutorial and police officer bias to infiltrate the Board, which has made fairness in paroling decisions impossible.

 

THE SOLUTIONS [22]

 

Section 3-3-1: There are key amendments and additions to Section 3-3-1 that would serve to ensure the Board consists of members uniquely qualified and willing to recognize when someone has been restored to useful citizenship.

 

Board Member Appointment: The way Board members are appointed and approved should be amended to increase the institutional independence. Currently, appointments are made by the Governor of Illinois subject to advice and consent of the Illinois Senate. [23] Board members are subject to removal by the Governor, creating an institutional structure where the members may be removed as easily as they are appointed. [24] While the importance of a Board that represents a diversity of interests and that is diverse in qualifications is clear, [25] current law relies on the Governor to ensure such diversity, which is inappropriate given how the political tides fluctuate. This method of appointment and removal creates a Board full of members vulnerable to undue political influence. [26] Instead of gubernatorial appointments, Illinois should adopt a new process for appointment where a special panel made up of representatives from different branches of government and the criminal justice system makes Board recommendations to the Governor.

 

Hawaii offers a model for Illinois, with a panel “composed of the chief justice of the Hawaii supreme court, the director, the president of the Hawaii Criminal Justice Association, the president of the bar association of Hawaii, a representative designated by the head of the Interfaith Alliance Hawaii, a member from the general public to be appointed by the governor, and the president of the Hawaii chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.” [27] Notably, the paroling rate in Illinois was 10% in Fiscal Year 2015. [28] Paroling rate in Hawaii was 34.5% in Fiscal Year 2015. [29]

 

Illinois should create a Special Appointment Committee composed of the chief justice of the Illinois supreme court, the chair of the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, a representative designated by the head of the Interfaith Alliance Illinois, the president of the bar association of Illinois, a member from the general public appointed by the Governor, one formerly incarcerated person who has served at least 10 years in IDOC appointed by the John Howard Association, and the president of Illinois chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

 

This Special Appointment Committee shall recommend no less than three candidates for the parole board to the Governor of Illinois any time a vacancy shall arise in the Board. The Special Appointment Committee will also have reviewing authority over the Board and can hold a hearing to remove for cause any Board member, including when a Board member’s voting rate reflects antagonism toward granting parole.

 

Board Member Qualifications: The qualifications for the current board members should be amended to foster a diverse board with sound professional qualifications and knowledge-based expertise, coupled with a belief in the possibility of rehabilitation and redemption. The power vested in the Board is enormous—the power to decide whether a sentence has served its goal of rehabilitation. Half of the Board members highlighted by Injustice Watch are former prosecutors and police officers. [30] There is strong evidence that such a skewed board accounts for the near impossible battle people face in trying to make parole. [31]

 

A diverse and competent board is critically important, and Illinois’s current Board does not reflect such an understanding. Section 3-3-1(b) should be amended to add a requirement of a bachelor’s degree and three years actual experience in a variety of fields.  We propose removing the fields of penology, corrections work, law enforcement and law and adding social science, developmental brain science, psychiatry, statistical analysis, and applied mathematics, to mitigate the biases reflected in the current board. With our proposed amendment to 3-3-2 requiring use of risk-assessment tools, having a board member who understands risk-assessment tools and the potential biases in those tools is necessary. There should also be a limit placed on Board members with backgrounds as prosecutors or law enforcement, with a maximum of two. Finally, there should be serious consideration to including a formerly incarcerated person.

 

Section 3-3-2: There are additional amendments to Section 3-3-2 that are necessary to ensure that duly qualified Board members effectively and ethically carry out their duty to meaningfully consider parole for eligible candidates.

 

Continuing Education: Section 3-3-2 needs an addition requiring Board members to participate in continuing education on an annual basis in order to ensure that Board members remain qualified to make paroling decisions and that their decisions are well-informed. Continuing education is a requirement in a variety of fields. [32] It is well-recognized that continuing education opportunities are important to ensure that workers stay current with the latest development, skills, and new technologies required to remain competent in their field. [33] The Board members hold positions of power that requires them to think critically, address unique problems, and serve an ever-changing, multicultural society. It is therefore important that Board members stay current in restorative justice practices, sociology and brain development science, as well as technological advancements, particularly, risk assessment tools and the potential biases therein.

 

Panel Hearing Restructuring: To improve the panel structure for parole hearings, Section 3-3-2 should be amended to require a panel of five members to vote in hearings. This will reduce the number of meetings each Board member must attend, streamline the hearing process, and maintain or increase the level of diverse expertise at each hearing because of concurrent qualification changes to Section 3-3-1. The result will be three panels of five members each, one from each qualified profession. Finally, the amendment will remove the unreasonable penalty to a client’s parole chances when a Board member cannot attend. [34]

 

Use of a Validated Risk Assessment Tool: The Board is already required to utilize a risk assessment tool during parole proceedings, but statutes should go further to limit bias and promote the state’s goals to reduce the prison population [35] and prioritize rehabilitation. [36] Under Section 3-3-7(21), the Board must set a parole client’s level of supervision to correspond with the likelihood of recidivism calculated by “a validated risk assessment.” Additionally, the Illinois Crime Reduction Act of 2009 mandates:

 

  • 15(b): “[T]he Prisoner Review Board shall adopt policies, rules, and regulations that within 3 years of the effective date of this Act result in the adoption, validation, and utilization of a statewide, standardized risk assessment tool across the Illinois criminal justice system. 730 ILCS 190/15(b).

 

In passing the Crime Reduction Act, Illinois joined the majority of U.S. states in its use of a risk assessment tool to make decisions at various stages in the criminal justice process. [37] Illinois selected the Service Planning Instrument (SPIn) out of a wide range of possible assessment tools to determine the risks and needs of parole clients and persons on Mandatory Supervised Release. [38] Despite the statutory requirement that the Illinois system complete risk assessment implementation by January 2013, that goal has still not been reached, as of November 2018. Delays have continued to hinder the use of this tool. The Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council (SPAC) reports that IDOC now conducts a SPIn assessment upon admission in 100% of cases, but the scores are not always being sent to PRB. This is a shortcoming that needs to be remedied so people up for parole can receive the full benefits of the risk assessment tools. The delays demonstrate the difficulties inherent in implementing new technology in a system that is not completely equipped for change, but the fact that implementation is almost complete is a good sign.

 

SPAC asserts that the SPIn assessment has been validated, but research on this point is mixed. [39] A validation study determines the level of accuracy (e.g. low, medium, high) of a prediction when compared to subsequent data that confirms or discounts that prediction. For example, if a SPIn score suggests that a potential parole client is a low risk to recidivate and has low supervision needs, and it turns out that the parole client, once released, succeeds in his re-entry program and is not charged with any new crime for three years, the assessment validity for that case would be very high. This process of validating these predictions is aggregated across classes of incarcerated people to determine the overall level of validity. Illinois’ use of SPIn is itself a risky move; the predictive validity of the tool has not been measured in a U.S. population. Though it shows good validity in a Canadian sample, that study did not analyze the validity of the tool when applied to Black or Hispanic parolees. [40] This raises serious questions about the continued use of SPIn (and SPIn-W for justice-involved women); the tool’s creator will conduct a validity study based on Illinois data after three years of implementation. Board members and policymakers should ensure this analysis happens. If the results suggest that SPIn suffers from low validity, racial disparities in assigning risk scores, or any other serious discrepancy, the PRB, elected officials, and criminal justice advocates should object to the continued use of SPIn unless and until its shortcomings can be remedied. The following recommendations assume that the current tool will be validated in the coming years.

 

Annual Risk Assessment Audit: The Board, in consultation with experts in actuarial sciences from neutral agencies like the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council and the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, shall conduct an annual audit of the risk assessment’s source code, inputs, and outputs, to review for bias and continuing validity. The audit should result in recommendations to update the tool, keep it as-is, or end the use of the tool if it is no longer useful. Because notice and predictability in criminal justice policy changes are desirable, the decision to switch to a new validated risk assessment tool for parole decisions should be implemented with a focus on minimizing any impact on clients’ parole hearings.

 

The Board should promulgate regulations that govern the audit process and consult specifically with those Board members with a background in actuarial sciences to determine the procedure. Because of the current mystery surrounding many actuarial tools, the Board should explore the possibility of adopting an open-source method of determining risk and needs in parole.

 

Presumptive Release and Right to Appeal: If a potential parole client’s risk assessment score favors release, it is presumed the Board will follow the assessment’s recommendation. The process for departures from a presumptive release model are based on Minnesota’s Sentencing Guidelines as a model. [41] The Board may only depart from the presumption of release if there are “identifiable, substantial, and compelling circumstances to support a departure.” [42] When the Board denies parole, the parole client has the right to know his risk score and the right to appeal the adverse decision for reasons consistent with Administrative Procedure Act review. [43] The first appeal may be in front of the initial panel or the Board en banc, but there must be a pathway to the Illinois Circuit Court for review.

 

CONCLUSION

 

When viewed together, the Illinois Constitution’s mandate that sentencing decisions be made with a person’s eventual return to useful citizenship in mind, the Illinois’ Governor’s goal to significantly reduce the prison population by 2025, and the virtual lack of meaningful parole opportunity in this state paint a picture of a clear need for reform. The recommendations we propose will immediately improve the parole process in Illinois by prioritizing expertise, efficiency, technological developments, and diversity. We hope these reforms will be part of a legislatively enacted comprehensive return to discretionary parole because each positive step will help to build a fairer system in the aggregate.


  1. See Pub. Act No. 80-1099 (1977), codified at Ill. Rev. Stat. ch. 38, §§ 1001-1008.
  2. The United States Sentencing Commission defines the cut off for a de facto life sentence at 470 months, or just shy of 40 years. Life Sentences in the Federal System, The United States Sentencing Commission (Feb. 2015), https://www.ussc.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/research-and-publications/research-projects-and-surveys/miscellaneous/20150226_Life_Sentences.pdf. As of September 2018, in IDOC there were 1,594 persons serving life sentences, 152 with sentences over 100 years, and 3,918 serving sentences between 40-100 years; about 100 persons were sentenced before 1978 and are parole-eligible. Prison Population on 09-30-18 Data Set, IDOC, available at https://www2.illinois.gov/idoc/reportsandstatistics/Pages/Prison-Population-Data-Sets.aspx.
  3. Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, § 11.
  4. 28 Nov Media Alert: HB531 (Senate Floor Amendment 1) Passes Illinois General Assembly, Restore Justice Illinois (Nov. 28, 2018), https://restorejusticeillinois.org/hb-531-senate-floor-amendment-1-passes-illinois-general-assembly/.
  5. 730 ILCS 5/3-3-1(a)(1), (3), (5), (6).
  6. 730 ILCS 5/3-3-1(a)(2).
  7. 730 ILCS 5/3-3-1(a)(4).
  8. 730 ILCS 5/3-3-1(b)
  9. See Section 3-3-2(a)(1), (3), (3.5), (3.6), (4), (5), (6), (8), (9).
  10. 730 ILCS 5/5-3-2(a)(2).
  11. A tie vote, or a vote of less than a majority of the appointed members of the Board favoring parole, shall result in the denial of the application for parole.” Ill. Admin. Code § 1610.40(b)(4)(b). 
  12. In IDOC, the tool currently being used is called the Service Planning Instrument, or SPIn.
  13. 730 ILCS 5/3-3-7(21).
  14. For example, research has shown that while a high level of community supervision for high-needs, high-risk persons on parole helps reduce the risk of recidivism, a high level of supervision for a low-risk person on parole can actually increase the recidivism risk.
  15. ACLU, Practitioner’s Handbook for the Illinois Department of Corrections.
  16. Emily Hoerner & Jeane Kuang, Records of Illinois Parole Board Show Just How Rarely Inmates Win Release, InjusticeWatch (July 27, 2018), https://www.injusticewatch.org/news/2018/illinois-inmates-parole-board-voting-records/; The current Board members missing from the chart are Lisa Daniels (July 2018), Patricia Wilson (July 2018), & Joseph Ruggiero (Sept. 2018).
  17. Rachel E, Barkow, Prosecutorial Administration: Prosecutor Bias and the Department of Justice, 99 Va. L. Rev. 217, 313 (2013) (citing studies).
  18. Id.; see also Barbara O’Brien, A Recipe for Bias: An Empirical Look at the Incentives and Bounded Rationality In Prosecutorial Decision Making, 74 Mo. L. Rev. 999, at 1011–13 (2009); Keith A. Findley & Michael S. Scott, The Multiple Dimensions of Tunnel Vision in Criminal Cases, 2 Wis. L. Rev. 291 (2006) (discussing the ways common cognitive biases can affect a criminal prosecution at all stages).
  19. Id.
  20. See Moa Lidén, et. al., The Presumption of Guilt in Suspect Interrogations: Apprehension as a Trigger of Confirmation Bias and Debiasing Techniques, 42 Law and Human Behavior 336 (2018); Steve. D. Charman, et. al., Cognitive Bias in the Legal System: Police Officers Evaluate Ambiguous Evidence in a Belief-Consistent Manner, 6 J. of Applied Research in Memory & Cognition 193, 198–201 (2017).
  21. Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, § 11.
  22. The proposed amendments of 730 ILCS 5/3-3-1 & 3-3-2 in this white paper are meant to coincide with a more comprehensive reform that would bring back discretionary parole in Illinois. However, the amendments are designed to positively impact current IDOC residents eligible for parole even absent any other reform.
  23. 730 ILCS 5/3-3-1(b).
  24. 730 ILCS 5/3-3-1(c).
  25. Paul Bigman, Discretion, Determinate Sentencing and the Illinois Prisoner Review Board: A Shotgun Wedding, Group 8–9 (Chicago Law Enforcement Study, 1979).
  26. Edward E. Rhine, Joan Petersilia, & Kevin R. Reitz, The Future of Parole Release, 46 Crime and Justice 279, 287 (Nov. 7, 2016).
  27. Hawaii Code, Title 30 § 353-61.
  28. Illinois Prisoner Review Board, 39th Annual Report, January 1 to December 31, 2015, 8 (2015), available at https://www2.illinois.gov/sites/prb/Documents/prb15anlrpt.pdf.
  29. Hawaii Paroling Authority, 2017 Annual Statistic Report: Fiscal Year 2017, July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017, 2 (2017), available at https://dps.hawaii.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/2017-Annual-Report.pdf.
  30. Hoerner & Kuang, supra note 15.
  31. See supra text accompanying notes 15–20.
  32. The Importance of Continuing Education, South University (Aug. 3, 2012), https://www.southuniversity.edu/whoweare/newsroom/blog/the-importance-of-continuing-education-98201.
  33. Id.
  34. Proposed Sect. 3-3-2 (a)(2) (revisions in italics): “…the decision to parole and the conditions of parole for all eligible prisoners shall be determined by a majority vote of a panel of five members of the Prisoner Review Board. The panel may not include any more than one person from a given profession. Abstentions shall not be counted as votes against parole.
  35. Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice & Sentencing Reform, 25% by 2025: Reducing the Illinois Prison Population by 25% (2016), available at http://www.icjia.org/cjreform2015/research/25-by-2025.html.
  36. Ill. const. 1970, art. 1 § 11.
  37. Robina Institute Nationwide Report of Risk Assessment Tools in Parole and Revocation.
  38. Orbis Partners, SPIn Adult Assessment, Orbis (2018) available at: https://orbispartners.com/assessment/adult-assessment-spin/.
  39. Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform Final Report 24 (December 2016).
  40. Jay P. Singh, Handbook of Recidivism Risk / Needs Assessment Tools 194–96 (2018).
  41. Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, Minn. Sentencing Guidelines and Commentary (2018).
  42. Id.
  43. These circumstances are similar to those laid out by the Board in Ill. Adm. Code § 1610.70(c)(3):
    1. A)        the decision is contrary to law or the guidelines governing decision;
    2. B)        the reasons given for the decision do not support the decision;
    3. C)        there is not sufficient factual support in the record to support the decision;
    4. D)        the length of the release date is disproportionate with other like cases or sentences. (promulgated by the Prisoner Review Board as reasons members of the Board may reverse or modify a previous prior release date offer under Sect. 3-3-2.1(h)).

 

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?

 

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

 

Debate Team memo to Pritzker’s Restorative Justice Cmte., Dec 3, 2018

December 3, 2018

TO:  Committee Chairs Kim Fox, Jehan Gordon-Booth, and Robin Kelly

CC: Lieutenant Governor-elect Juliana Stratton, Representative Rita Mayfield

FROM: The Stateville Debate Team

RE: Invitation to meet with the Stateville Debate Team

 

We are aware that Governor-elect Pritzker has announced the formation of a Restorative Justice and Safe Communities Committee. We appreciate that the Governor-elect recognizes the need to fix our broken criminal-justice system and to do so in a way that “move[s] away from a system of imprisonment and build[s] a true system of justice.”

We are writing today for two reasons. First, we believe that the establishment of a fair, inclusive, and retroactive parole system is crucial to true criminal-legal reform. This system must evaluate every person who enters prison to assess their program and rehabilitation needs; and, equally important, it must evaluate the currently incarcerated men and women, with the aim of ameliorating the excessive sentences that already have been handed out.

Second we believe that the committee needs to hear directly from incarcerated individuals. Regardless of how well-intentioned the committee, they will not fully understand the failings of our criminal-legal system or the steps needed for “a true system of justice” until they hear from the men and women who have direct experience with prisons and the criminal-legal system.

Therefore, we invite the chairs and members of your committee to come to Stateville Correctional Center and meet with the Stateville Debate Team. The Stateville Debate Team is particularly well positioned to contribute to the work of your committee.  We are group of men from diverse social backgrounds who have experienced incarceration at prisons across the state. We were selected to participate in an educational debate program at Stateville prison. We have pursued substantial research on criminal-justice reform. We have presented our analysis of issues related to discretionary parole to a group of state legislators and community members last March.

We also urge the committee to meet with incarcerated people at prisons across Illinois. Women prisoners have unique concerns and perspectives, and we particularly hope that you will meet with women such as Janet Jackson and other women incarcerated at Logan.

Finally, as you may know, Representative Rita Mayfield recently held subject-matter-only hearings on the issue of bringing a fair parole system to Illinois. Representative Mayfield has conferred with the Stateville Debate Team and is drafting legislation based on the framework developed by the Debate Team.   The Debate Team proposal can be found here: https://paroleillinois.org/stateville-debate-team-proposal/. We also invite you to visit the Parole Illinois website, ParoleIllinois.org.

We look forward to further discussions with you.  (You can contact us at ParoleIllinois@gmail.com)

“Why it is imperative that incarcerated individuals can review their master files,” Joseph Dole

Why it is Imperative that Incarcerated Illinoisans Have a Right to Review Their “Master Files” and a way to Challenge any Inaccurate Information Contained within Them.

By Joseph Dole

The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) maintains what is called a “master file” on every incarcerated individual under its control. Among other things, the master file contains a statement of facts about the crime he or she was convicted of, their sentence calculation (or mittimus) sheet, their disciplinary history, grievances they have filed, and much more

During clemency proceedings, the Prisoner Review Board has unfettered access to the master file of any incarcerated person seeking clemency. If a parole system were to be reinstated in Illinois, any parole board would most likely have unfettered access as well, just as they did under the previous parole system

IDOC staff likewise have unfettered access to incarcerated persons’ master files, and can place within them negative information without any check on the veracity of the information. However, under current IDOC regulations, not only is an incarcerated person barred from accessing their own master file to determine if there is false, misleading, or fabricated information contained within it, but there is also no formal mechanism to challenge the inclusion of such information if one, by chance, discovers it.

Negative information in one’s master file can have dire consequences, especially when it is erroneous. It can literally be used to increase one’s punishment for new disciplinary infractions,[1] can sway the Prisoner Review Board to recommend that the Governor deny the person clemency, and if a parole system is reestablished, could be used to deny a person parole. Thus, as the courts already have noted, incarcerated individuals have a liberty interest, and thus a due process right, not to have inaccurate information in their master files.

The problem is that you don’t know what you don’t know. If someone is denied access to his or her master file and it contains false information, he or she lacks the knowledge of the inaccuracy to challenge it. Moreover, as there is no mechanism for challenging the inaccurate information (in those rare instances when it comes to light) it becomes impossible to have it removed short of a court order.

As noted, it is rare that one obtains access to their master file. This is usually only achieved through a subpoena or other discovery requests during civil litigation or post-conviction criminal proceedings. When it occurs, though, the incarcerated individual often finds false, misleading, or outright fabricated information therein. Sometimes it will be inaccurate disciplinary information, such as a finding of guilt for an infraction a person was actually found not guilty of, or which was supposed to have been expunged. Other times, they find a master file devoid of any the person’s accomplishments while incarcerated (due to counselors not wanting to including information that reflects positively on the incarcerated individual), thus giving a misleading impression of the person being unproductive while in prison. Some people find inaccurate prison work histories, or erroneous “facts” in the “statement of facts,” or learn that good time was unlawfully revoked when the IDOC Director didn’t approve such revocation.

Then there is also the fabrications put in by staff members retaliating against the incarcerated person for filing grievances or lawsuits, or for engaging in verbal or physical altercations with staff. This type of retaliatory fabrication of negative information being placed in one’s master file can range from false allegations of threats of violence to fabricated nicknames or gang affiliations.

Therefore, to protect a person’s due process rights and ensure basic fundamental fairness in any parole system, it is imperative that all incarcerated Illinoisans have unfettered access to their own master files, and that a timely mechanism to challenge and remove erroneous information therein be created and available prior to any parole hearing. One’s freedom may depend on it.

[1] 20 Illinois Administrative Code Section 504.20 (b)(5).

[2] ***

Essay by Ibi Cole

I was asked to write about a prisoner and about Parole in Illinois. But strange as it may be, before I expound on Parole, I felt more compelled to write about you… to write to you about you.

Strange, I agree. But here goes…

From the moment the cell doors slam on a person, I always imagine that what begins there, is some form of a count down: Count down for time to be released; count down to the time to die… or count down the time to get out.

Get out. Get away. Go back home. There would be a scramble, maybe…eventually. Whether innocent or guilty, the library would be filled with those attempting to find out what happened; find an appeal, find some loophole or an escape route. Then, there would be the letters; letters and petitions; petitions to attorneys or advocates. All wanting the same thing: to get out. Letters saying: “Help me. Look what happened to me.”

And then there’s you. The person the advocates and the attorneys and politicians want. The one who has to read through the pleas and proceedings of activists and support organizations trying to get people to feel something for prisoners, because if you see them as people, then maybe you could have sympathy or empathy for them.

It’s easy to kill or forget a monster. It’s hard to torture a person.

But, I’d rather write this essay about you; a person of profound interest. The one pulled and tugged by both sides of a spectrum; the one that must be convinced. But how could anyone know for certain… that they are not all monsters? That any one of them is human? Is anyone truly themselves when they are fighting for their lives? Those charged with raising doubt would tell you: people can say just about anything when they are fighting for their own lives, right? It seems so selfish or at least disingenuous to be apologetic at such a time. How would we know they are not con men? Con men are humans too.

So, I’m looking at you and I’m thinking: Let’s put monsters and men aside for a moment and ask you about you; if you are getting what you want out of any of this. Are you getting justice? Is justice being served? When a child is born and depending on whatever womb they are born from, they may face a high-stakes, uphill battle to obtain a marginal education, craft skill or alleyway of opportunity and if by most staggering statistical odds they end up miseducated, unskilled and without opportunity, that they will stumble down a rabbit hole of self destruction that may or may not land in your back yard; in your front yard, in your parked car, in your house, on your college campus or at your child’s school. How many more scientists and economists have to write papers pointing to the same answers?

Are you happy paying for the school to prison pipeline? All of it, any of it, either way: hit or miss, in your back yard or in your neighbors back yard. Are you okay paying for everything? And if you pay for it and don’t have to look at it, does that make it go away? Has it gone away? Or is it increasingly and intriguingly more and present. The more you try to erase, the more it appears. And isn’t it expensive? Increasingly closer to you. On your television every night and lurking between the ledgers of all of your security systems.

I’ve listened to and sat on panels of conferences, boardrooms of discussions, where tens to hundreds of brilliant people deliberated over ways to seduce you; to pull you in their corner for what they want. Make you feel empathy…sympathy. This is caught somewhere between the simultaneous attempts of news stations to scare you, politicians to woo you, governments to tax you and food and drug companies to sedate you. Victims families rightfully have all of us empathizing with their hurt and anger while prisoners rake up classes and petitions asking you feel sorry. Have you noticed the words that are missing in all of this?

Has anyone gotten what they needed? Do victims get satisfaction from warehousing or state sanctioned retaliation? Does it rewind time? Are streets any safer? Or does it feel like we’re going in circles?

And if we keep doing things the way they’ve always been done, are you comfortable with that always being a roll of the dice for you? Every time you walk out your front door, or jog at night?

What’s so intriguing about you, is that through all of the dice rolling and all of the buck passing from those trying to manipulate you onto their team, you’ve not once won a single game or even seen progress. But you keep paying for it all. The real losers aren’t just the prisoners and the victims. It’s you as well. And the only people winning are the ones who built the casino.

They built an arena and profit from both sides battling each other to the death. They built a system where masses and masses of people don’t get better. They simply “get out.” Or they just try to get out. They try to get you to get them out. And then all we get, once they’ve gotten that, is another social liability that pours back into the cycle of ignorance that fuels the whole machine running on your shoulders.

Instead of asking you to care about a prisoner in order to be a proponent of Parole in Illinois, I think I’d rather ask you to care enough about yourself and the world that your children will have to grow up in to pose the real questions. To flip the chessboard over and hold the game-maker accountable for the cycle of destruction we’ve all been wrapped into: A system that is called corrections, but makes very little progress at correcting things. A system called education, but makes very little progress at educating everyone. And even still, while we talk about justice and freedom; crime and punishment, there’s still words missing that you rightfully deserve.

Prevention ProAction Progress Well-Being Redemption Atonement Restoration Reparation

If someone was actually working toward a way where you could touch those things. Not another buzz word, or heart-string; not running in circles and not just getting out; would you listen?

Ask: Andre Patterson.

And then ask yourself: What socio-economic benefit has ever arisen from establishment of decentralized education funding since the inception of the U.S. Department of Education in 1867?

Ask yourself: If crime is the result of economic instability and economic instability is the result of non-education and non-education is the result of economic instability, what incentive do the corporations or government entities that claim billions of dollars in earnings and tax revenues each year from this cycle of ignorance have to bring about or propel legislation that calls for equal education for all?

If America’s position as the number one jailer in the world, the rising recidivism rates and failed policies since the war on crime began in 1971 are no indication, ask yourself this:

Who is t,hen, incentivized to end the cycle of ignorance and incarceration? If the policy makers, corporations and prisons have found no incentive to diminish mass incarceration (except when there’s a national recession),Who is incentivized to educate the disenfranchised youth of tomorrow? Who will dare to step into forgotten schools, neighborhoods and confront the angry, mis-guided, mis-educated pipe line counterparts BEFORE they terrorize anyone’s neighborhood?

Who is the most equipped with nothing else to lose? Who has seen the pendulum swing and seen the end of the dead-end road? Who has been to the depths of hell and climbed out again to warn others to go a different way? Who has self-educated, self motivated and self demonstrated a plan to set a new course for the future?

Those Paroled from Prison.