Right to Representation

Supporting Argument 16 & 17. Eligible persons have the right to legal representation as well as the right to attend and testify at their parole hearings.

It’s a Friday afternoon and I’m engaged in a rather poignant conversation with a friend of mine about the current configuration of the Illinois parole board.

My friend informs me, “Most potential parolees have become so fed up and distraught over being arbitrarily denied parole every single time that one person has even filed a lawsuit asking the court to intervene.”  Are you serious, I ask?  “Yes, and one person has even threatened to boycott his own parole hearings,” he answers.  Boycott a parole hearing?  I ask, somewhat confused.  “Yes, the many arbitrary denials have resulted in him questioning the use in a hearing that will endlessly produce the same immovable result.”

The person who has considered boycotting his own parole hearings is Amenseb S. B’ne Ra.  Mr. B’ne Ra has had over thirty parole hearings, and has been denied each time.  At nearly every hearing, the board has denied him due to the seriousness of his offense.

I had an opportunity to meet with Mr. B’ne Ra personally and asked him why he considered boycotting his parole hearings.  Mr. B’ne Ra looked me in the eyes and said, “Brother, I am just tired.  I’ve been incarcerated for over forty years and I’ve had nearly thirty parole hearings and each time I’m denied due to the seriousness of my offense.  The seriousness of my offense is not going to change, but I have.”  He went on to say, “So I am just tired of the arbitrary decisions and not having anyone to protect me during those proceedings.” I asked him what he meant by protection.  “Well, at the hearings, both evidence and witnesses are received.  The State’s Attorneys office, the IDOC and the PRB present evidence and I have no one to rebut or protect me against what they say.”  Wow.  I think to myself, maybe one of those thirty some-odd parole hearings would have turned out differently for Mr. B’ne Ra if independent counsel was there to protect him – just maybe.

Indeed, parole hearings in many respects resemble quasi-trial settings.  Both evidence and witnesses are received and are weighed alongside other factors the board considers in making its determination.  Significant weight is given to a potential parolee’s disciplinary record, prison reports, and the seriousness of the offense for which he or she is convicted as the board attempts to assess whether a person would pose a future risk to society.

These factors are considered together with Victim Impacts Statements and objections from state’s attorneys.  That evidence is then contrasted against an inmate’s accomplishments while in prison, statements of support from family and friends, potential support groups offering assistance to the inmate upon release, and whether the inmate accepts responsibility for his or her actions.

Given all of the technical aspects of parole proceedings (namely the sheer nature of the evidence being weighted and the number of potential witnesses) and considering the enormity of what is at stake, the best means of ensuring equality in the proceedings, ensuring conformity to rules and ensuring that due process is maintained is through the appointment of independent counsel on behalf of every potential parolee. Without counsel, potential parolees are at the behest of members of the parole board who we simply presume will protect their rights.

The appointment of independent counsel is tantamount to upholding the integrity of these proceedings.  Counsel would act as a buffer between the inmate and the parole board.  He or she would aid significantly in shaping the hearing by aligning favorable witnesses, investigating and gathering other favorable evidence, and more importantly, counsel would be in a position to rebut unfavorable or highly inflammatory evidence.  No indigent inmate can do these things on their own.  The lack of counsel today continually puts potential parolees at a distinct disadvantage – the very thing that has distressed Mr. B’ne Ra for decades.

In light of the above, can we really safely presume that absolutely zero bias has entered into any paroling decision made to date?

Mr. B’ne Ra has become so frustrated with the board’s unchecked bias that he has even contemplated boycotting his own parole hearings.  While such a decision may not appear to be an advantageous one to those of us who have not experienced the same yoke of oppression as Mr. B’ne Ra, to him, the possibility of boycotting feels like the only method available to draw attention to the grave injustices that have resulted in so much suffering in his life.

Since, in the course of his 30 some-odd parole hearings, Mr. B’ne Ra has never had independent counsel to protect him against arbitrary or prejudicial practices, then not one of his thirty hearings can be seriously trusted to have been held with any level of integrity.

Parole boards are largely made up of former police officers, states attorneys and judges, all of which are positions that are integral in sending people to prison.  Understandably, it is difficult for them to retreat from concerns for retributive justice when considering whether to release someone from prison.  That is why my teammate Howard has written about the necessity of separating concerns of justice from concerns of public safety.  But until the time when prosecutors and law enforcement are removed from the parole board, and until parole hearings have been completely stripped of the potential for bias against the potential parolees (which, to be clear, we don’t think will ever be the case, despite our extremely well-constructed bill) then we have an obligation to supply every potential parolee with independent counsel.

~ Written by Eugene Ross (aka Al Ameen)
Al Ameen was incarcerated at age 20 in 1997 and he is currently ineligible for parole.

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Right to Review and Challenge

Supporting Argument 18. Every incarcerated person shall have a right to review their master file and challenge any inaccurate information contained therein.

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, 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.

~ Written by Joseph Dole
Joe was incarcerated at age 22 and is currently ineligible for parole.

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Special Considerations

Supporting Arguments 15. People who have been incarcerated for long periods and the elderly deserve special consideration in parole determinations.

The main goal of any parole system should be to ensure that people aren’t kept incarcerated past the point that they cease posing a threat to society. This ensures both the safety of society and that a state’s limited resources are not wasted on over-incapacitation. Having incarcerated so many millions of our fellow citizens for so long, we now have reams of data showing who is most or least likely to commit a new crime if released from prison. Unfortunately, the facts are often drowned out by rhetoric and stigma.
The facts are that: 1) people in prison for violent crimes and people who have served long prison terms are the safest people to release; and 2) the only way to address the problem of mass incarceration is to reduce sentences for violent crimes and release people from prison who statistics show are unlikely to commit another crime.
With her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander kicked off a lively debate about the causes of mass incarceration and how to address the problem. While The New Jim Crow was an incredibly important contribution to addressing the racist criminal laws of our country, and has been the main catalyst for sentencing reforms concerning drug crimes, it has come under criticism for being too narrow.
Contrary to her assertions, incarcerating people for drug crimes has not been the main driver of mass incarceration. More recent research has shown, unequivocally, that it actually has been the incarceration for violent crimes for extraordinarily long periods of time.
Fordham law school professor John Pfaff notes in his book Locked In that “over half of all state inmates are in prison for violent crimes, and the incarceration of people who have been convicted of violent offenses explains almost two-thirds of the growth in prison populations since 1990. Similarly, almost all the people who actually serve long sentences have been convicted of serious violent crimes.”[1] In her book Caught, professor Marie Gottschalk came to the same conclusion:

The reality is that tougher sentences across the board for both serious crimes and petty offenses initially fueled the prison buildup. But the contribution of violent offenders to the prison population now significantly dwarfs the contribution of drug offenders. . . .Ending the war on drugs—one of the top priorities for many penal reformers—will not necessarily end mass incarceration in the United States because drug offenders have not been the primary driver of growth in the prison population.[2]

Both Pfaff and Gottschalk seem to agree with the conclusion of the Urban Institute, which found that “[w]e can’t tackle mass incarceration without addressing long prison terms,”[3] which inevitably means addressing sentences for violent crimes.
Bringing back a parole system for all incarcerated people, including those in prison for violent crimes and applying it retroactively is not only the humane thing to do, but can be done safely and make a serious dent in addressing mass incarceration. Not to mention save the state a lot of money.
According to The National Conference on State Legislation, Illinois currently spends over 800 million dollars per year incarcerating people convicted of violent offenses.[4] This is in part due to the fact that in the late 1990s Illinois passed its own Truth-In-Sentencing law without any examination beforehand of what it would cost. Illinois thereby legislated itself into an annual minimum of 250 million dollars in added liabilities.[5]
Those who study the issue in any depth find that severely long prison sentences for violent crimes bring extraordinarily high costs with almost no benefit once the person remains incapacitated past the point that he or she poses a threat to society.[6] Like many others, Marie Gottschalk laments that people “are serving savagely long sentences for violent offenses even though they no longer pose serious threats to public safety.”[7]
Unfortunately, due to decades of tough-on-crime rhetoric and political machinations, Americans in general have a misperception that people who are incarcerated for violent crimes pose a serious threat of committing further violence if released. Due to this misperception, we have enacted laws to implement our nonsensical rhetoric of “lock-em’-up and throw away the key,” and we now have hundreds of thousands of Americans, and thousands of Illinoisans, who will die in prison of old age due to having “committed” a violent offense. Many people are convicted of violent crimes under theories of accountability or felony murder, meaning they personally did nothing violent but may have simply aided someone who did.
The truth is that people incarcerated even for the most serious, most violent offenses, like murder, are no greater threat to society than anyone else in prison. In fact, for numerous reasons, as time goes by, they actually become less of a threat to society, and thus safer to release than the allegedly “non-violent” people we are so quick to release from prison in a budget crisis.
John Pfaff notes how “our current approach to punishing those convicted of violence is almost entirely blind to mountains of sophisticated research about violent behavior.”[8] That research includes the fact that, according to Marie Gottschalk, “[i]t is well established in the criminology literature that ‘the current offense that one commits is a very poor predictor of the next offense.’”[9]
Gottschalk goes on to explain that:

Many of the people sent to prison for violent offenses are not necessarily violent offenders years later. Nevertheless, the common perception is that they are still violent despite stellar prison conduct records, ample evidence of rehabilitation through education, volunteering, and other programs, and conclusive research findings that people tend to age out of crime.[10]

This is because, as Pfaff so cogently explains:

For almost all people who commit violent crimes, however, violence is not a defining trait but a transitory state that they age out of. They are not violent people; they are simply going through a violent phase. Locking them up and throwing away the key ignores the fact that someone who acts violently when he’s eighteen years old may very well be substantially calmer by the time he’s thirty-five.

In short, a person’s level of aggression fluctuates over time, and in ways implying that long sentences frequently over-incapacitate. We don’t need to lock up most violent twenty-year-olds for thirty years to keep ourselves safe, since most of them would naturally desist from offending much sooner than that.[11]

When one thinks about it, this is common sense. Many violent crimes are committed by hot-headed youth whose brains are not yet fully developed, making it difficult for them to control their emotions. [12] Once the brain maturation process is complete and a person reaches psychosocial maturity, around age 25 to 30, people are less likely to act out in rash and violent ways. Moreover, once a man passes his physical prime he is less able to defend himself from violence, and thus less likely to instigate or engage in violence himself. Thus, it is easy to understand why “[n]ot only are most violent crimes committed by people under 30, but even the criminality that continues after that declines drastically after age 40 and even more so after 50.”[13] At some point, nearly everyone will say “screw this, I’m too old for this shit.”
Other than pedophiles, the people stigmatized as being the largest perpetual threat to society are people who commit murder. However, if we look at those who were in prison for murder and then released, we see clear evidence that our assumptions are erroneous. The Justice Policy Institute noted in 2016 that “[p]eople whose most serious crime was homicide. . . show the lowest recidivism rates.”[14] This fact is borne out by one study after another. When a 2012 court decision in Maryland forced the early release of more than 100 people, most of whom were convicted of homicide, none had been convicted of a new felony offense when reviewed in 2016 by National Public Radio.[15]
Similarly, in California, where just shy of half of all people released from prison are sent back within three years for new offense, those released after serving time for murder stand out from the rest. In 2011, when researchers looked at the 860 such people paroled since 1995, they found “only five individuals” sent back “for new felonies since being released, and none for life-term crimes”[16] (which, in California, is really saying something where the 3-Strikes law has sentenced people to life terms for simple theft of golf clubs or pizza). That represents a “lower than one percent recidivism rate.”[17]
In New York, one review after another looking into whether people who are released after serving time for murder commit further crimes came to the same conclusion—they almost never do. Only three percent of such people who were released between 1985 and 2002 “were returned to prison for new crimes after 3 years.”[18] “Of the 368 people convicted of murder who were granted parole in New York between 1999 and 2003, only six, or less than 2 percent, were returned to prison within three years for a new felony conviction and none were reimprisoned for a violent offense.”[19] Out of the nearly 1,000 people granted parole between 2009 and 2012 in New York for A-1 violent felony offenses (most of which were homicide) “only two—or less than one percent—were reimprisoned for a new felony conviction.”[20] Moreover, “over a longer timeline, of the 871 A-1 violent felony offenders who were conditionally released from their life sentences in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011, only five were returned for new felony convictions.”[21]

No other cohort of people released from prison has as low recidivism rates as those who served long sentences for murder. Unfortunately, nowadays people convicted of murder, especially in Illinois, almost never get out of prison.
John Pfaff puts it bluntly:
The harsh sentences we impose on people convicted of violent crimes are not buying us the security we think they are: they incapacitate people longer than necessary and provide little deterrence in exchange. It’s a situation that begs for real reform.[22]

It’s quite likely that being less harsh toward people who commit violent crimes might actually make us safer. Or at least it would have no impact on safety while freeing up resources to be better used elsewhere and reducing the social costs of punishments as well.[23]

Due to the fact that violent offenders have extraordinarily low recidivism rates and are constantly overincarcerated due to misperceptions about the threat they pose to society, any actuarial tool or algorithm should give great weight to the fact that after a certain point statistics show people no longer pose a threat of committing a new offense if released. This should be done to ensure those with violent crimes aren’t incapacitated longer than necessary to achieve the goal of rehabilitation.
With such a stigma surrounding “violent criminals,” however, the idea of granting them a chance at parole may, at first, appear extremely controversial and not politically feasible. As we have seen though, such controversy is based largely on the false idea that they pose the greatest threat if released; while the reality is that they are really the least threat, and therefore safest to release.

Moreover, attitudes are quickly changing to the point that society is now realizing that we have gone overboard in handing out extremely long sentences. In 2004, United States Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that “our punishments [are] too severe [and] our sentences too long,” and while “[c]ourts may conclude the legislature is permitted to choose long sentences, . . .that does not mean long sentences are wise or just.”[24] Likewise, “[a] survey conducted by the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that 62% of federal judges interviewed felt that mandatory minimum sentences were too high for all offenses.”[25]
Nor is it just our judges that think so. Americans in general “believe that sentences should be shorter”; and more importantly, “[o]ver 80% of voters favor reducing prison time and creating. . .a stronger probation and parole system.”[26] Even many victims of crimes seem to agree. The Urban Institute just last year reported that “many people who have experienced the most serious crimes express a desire for restorative measures that help them heal and prevent the violence they suffered from happening again. A 2016 survey showed that 61 percent of crime survivors are in favor of shorter prison sentences and increased investment in crime prevention and rehabilitation.”[27]
That isn’t to say that people convicted of violent crimes won’t still serve long prison sentences with a new parole system. A rare few may even need to remain incarcerated for most of their lives if they remain violent throughout their incarceration. However, we need to redefine “long” more in line with international standards and what Americans, not so long ago, considered a “long” prison term. Back when Illinois had a parole system, even someone incarcerated for murder usually had the chance to go before the parole board after 11 years. Thus, few people actually spent their entire lives in prison. Today, on the other hand, Illinois has over 5,000 human beings who will die in prison[28] if something isn’t done. That’s about one out of every nine people currently under IDOC control. There are probably another 10,000 or more who have excessively long sentences and won’t see release until their most productive years are behind them.
Connie de la Vega and her fellow researchers noted in 2012 that “[s]entence severity in the United States has reached an extreme that contradicts its stated human rights obligation to direct its prisons system towards the primary goals of reformation and social rehabilitation, as set forth in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which it ratified in 1992.”[29]When one looks at Western industrialized countries, the United Stands stands apart in its over-use of life-without-parole and de facto, or virtual life, sentences. Many even reject the use of such sentences all together. For instance, many European countries instead promote “the idea that human rights norms require offenders serving life sentences to be treated as capable of rehabilitation,” the understanding that “[n]obody should be deprived of the chance of possible release,”[30] and “that no category of prisoners should be ‘stamped’ as likely to spend their natural life in prison and that no denial of release should ever be final, not even for recidivists.”[31]
This is because not only do people change and age of out of crime, but as Marie Gottschalk (and others) explain “[r]eleased long-time prisoners due not pose a major public threat.”[32] She cites several studies to make the point, one of which “found that the two-year return rate for men who had served eight years or more in New York State prisons was 20 percent. Nearly three-quarters of them were sent back because of a technical parole violation not the commission of a new crime.”[33] In other words, 95% did not return to prison for a new crime.
At some point, you begin to see diminishing returns the longer people stay incarcerated. John Pfaff notes that “[l]ong sentences generally over-incapacitate while producing little to no additional deterrence in exchange. The data are clear on this lose-lose relationship, even if the public is not convinced.”[34] This is especially true for the nearly 40 percent of long-termers who were juveniles or young adults (i.e., under the age of 25).[35] Due to juveniles’ undeveloped brains, researchers and the courts are increasingly recognizing that deterrence is an illusion, especially in regards to the young.[36]
Because of our outrageously long sentencing laws, and our increasing willingness to incarcerate elderly people in general, the number of geriatric people in prison is expanding rapidly. This has been called the “graying” of the nation’s prisons.[37] From 2007 to 2010, the number of people aged 65 or older in prison grew at 94 times the rate of the overall prison population.[38]
This is causing massive increases in health-care expenditures for correctional agencies, because, on average, it costs three times as much to care for elderly, inform people in prison.[39]
As the Urban Institute noted recently:
An aging prison population is one of the clearest signs of a prison system designed to punish people rather than ensure public safety. Keeping elderly people in prison, especially after they have lost their physical or mental capacities, serves no practical purpose, as demonstrated by the extremely low rates of recidivism among older people who are eventually released.[40]

For these reasons, at least 15 states, as well as the District of Columbia, have “provisions for geriatric release,”[41] and the Urban Institute recommends granting “medical parole to people with serious health challenges, especially the elderly.”[42] Georgia’s State Board of Pardons and Paroles “can parole any person who is age 62 or older.”[43]
Unfortunately, Illinois currently has no safety valve to release elderly or infirm people from prison, save the clemency process, which is almost never used on people in prison and is infested with political machinations.
For all of the above reasons, it is imperative that any parole system be designed to give special consideration to releasing the elderly or anyone who has served at least 10 years in prison, even if they have been convicted of violent offences. The simple fact is that they are often the safest to release, it would help solve our problems of over-incapacitation and mass incarceration, and save the state significant amounts of taxpayer funds that can be better spent on education, crime prevention, and other loftier goals. Thus, any new parole board in Illinois should have the independent authority to parole any person who reaches age 50 or who has served at least 15 consecutive years in prison.
It’s time we stop arbitrarily labelling people as irredeemable or permanently incorrigible at the outset, and time to start living up to both our international human rights obligations and our own Illinois constitutional obligation to return people to “useful citizenship.”[44]

~ Written by Joseph Dole
Joe was incarcerated at age 22 and is currently ineligible for parole.

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Footnotes

[1] John F. Pfaff, Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform, Basic Books (New York, NY) 2017, p. 11.

[2] Marie Gottschalk, Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ) 2016, p. 167.

[3] “A Matter of Time: The Causes and Consequences of Rising Times Served in Americas’ Prisons.” Urban Institute, July 2017, p. 9; see also Pfaff, supra note 1 at p. 185-187; and Gottschalk, supra note 2 at p. 11-12.  See also Nazgol Ghandnoosh, “Policy Brief: Can We Wait 75 Years to Cut the Prison Population in Half?” The Sentencing Project (March 2018), p. 4.

[4] “Defining Violence: Reducing Incarceration by Rethinking America’s Approach to Violence,” Justice Policy Institute (August 2016), p. 20.

[5] Joseph Rodney Dole, II, “Preliminary Findings Concerning the Financial Costs of Implementing Illinois’ Truth-In-Sentencing Laws (2002-2004).“ January 11, 2011, p. 17, available at http://realcostofprisons.org/materials/dole/preliminary/findings.pdf.

[6] See e.g. Pfaff supra note 1 at p. 230; PEW Center on the States, “One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections,” Washington, D.C., The PEW Charitable Trust, March 2009.

[7] Gottschalk supra note 2 at p. 258.

[8] Pfaff supra note 1, at p. 186-187.

[9] Gottschalk supra note 2, at p. 168; quoting Robert J. Sampson, “The Incarceration Ledger: Toward a New Era in Assessing Societal Consequences.” Criminology & Public Policy 10.3 (2001), 823.

[10] Gottschalk supra note 2, at p. 169.

[11] Pfaff supra note 1, at p. 190-192.

[12] Vincent Schiraldi and Bruce Western, “Why 21-Year-Old Offenders Should be Tried in Family Court,” Washington Post, October 2, 2017.

[13] Robert Weisberg, Debbie A. Mukumal, and Jordan D. Segall, “Life in Limbo: An Examination of Parole Release for Prisoners Serving Life Sentences with the Possibility of Parole in California.” Standford Law School, Stanford Criminal Justice Center (September 2011), p. 17.

[14] “Defining Violence,” supra note 4, at p. 6.

[15] “Defining Violence,” supra note 4, at p.6-7; cited “From a Life Term to Life on the Outside: When Aging Felons are Freed.” National Public Radio, February 18, 2018.

[16] Weisberg, et. al. supra note 13, at p. 17.

[17] ID.

[18] Hill, Michael, “Amid parole controversy, released murderers stay out of trouble.” Newsday, March 23, 2008.

[19] Gottschalk supra note 2, at p. 177; citing “Low Recidivism Rate Reported NY Murderers,” The Crime Report, January 7, 2011, which cites a 2011 study by the New York State Parole Board.

[20] “Defining Violence,” supra note 4, at p. 7; citing Freedom of Information Law appeal, email message from Terrence Tracy, April 19, 2013.

[21] Defining Violence,” supra note 4, at p. 7; citing “Returns for A-1 Violent Offenders. How do Violent Offenders perform in the community?” 2012 Annual Report from the Parole Board to the New York State Legislator.

[22] Pfaff supra note 1, at p. 187.

[23] Pfaff supra note 1, at p. 190.

[24] Kennedy, Justice Anthony, American Bar Association, Justice Kennedy Commission. Reports with Recommendation to the ABA House of Delegates. August, 2004.

[25] (emphasis added) Connie de la Vega, Amanda Solter, Soo-Ryun Kwan, and Dana Marie Isaac, “Cruel and Unusual: U.S. Sentencing Practices In A Global Context.” University of San Francisco School of Law (2012), p. 43; citing U.S. Sentencing Commission Results of Survey of United States District Judges Table 1 (2010).

[26] Connie de la Vega et. al., supra note 25, at p. 16; citing The Pew Center on the States, Public Opinions on Sentencing and Corrections Policy in America (2012).

[27] “A Matter of Time,” supra note 3, at p. 42.

[28] Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., “Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-term Sentences.” The Sentencing Project (2017), p. 10, table 2 (showing that in 2016 there were already 1,609 in Illinois serving a life-without-parole sentence, and another 3,478 with virtual life sentences—i.e., serving sentences of 50 years or more).

[29] Connie de la Vega, et. al., supra note 25, at p. 15; citing International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, December 16, 1966. S. Treaty Doc. No. 95-20 (1992), art. 10 (3), 999 U.N.T.S. 171.

[30] Connie de la Vega, et. al. supra note 25, at p. 24; citing Draft General Report on the Treatment of Long-Term Prisoners, Doc. No. CM (75) 143 add 3 (1975).

[31] Connie de la Vega, et. al., supra note 25, at p. 24, Memorandum of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Actual-Real Life Sentences 55 (June 27, 2007).

[32] Gottschalk supra note 2, at p. 189.

[33] Gottschalk supra note 2, at p. 177.

[34] Pfaff supra note 1, at p. 230.

[35] “A Matter of Time,” supra note 3, at p. 11.

[36] See e.g., People v. Nieto, 2016 I.L. App (1st) 121604, par. 55 (March 23, 2016); citing Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718, 726 (2016); See also, Dreisinger, Baz, Incarceration Nation: A Journey to Justice in Prisons around the World (Advance Copy) (2016) (Other Press, New York) p. 17 and 294; and Gottschalk supra note 2, at p. 262.

[37] PEW Center on the States supra note 6, at p. 19.

[38] Connie de la Vega et. al., supra note 25, at p. 18; citing Jamie Fellner, “Old Behind Bars: The Aging Prison Population in the United States.” Human Rights Watch 6 (January 27, 2012).

[39] Around $69,000 per year according to the National Center of Institutions and Alternatives; McMahon, Patrick, “Aging Inmates Present Prison Crisis,” USA Today, August 10, 2003.

[40] “A Matter of Time,” supra note 3, at p. 15.

[41] Gottschalk supra note 2, at p. 189.

[42] “A Matter of Time,” supra note 3, at p. 50.

[43] See the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles website,  https://pap.georgia.gov/parole-consideration-eligibility-guidelines.

[44] Illinois Constitution of 1970, article 1, section 11.

 

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Foster Connections with Loved Ones

Supporting Argument 14. Every correctional facility will comprehensively evaluate how well they foster relationships between incarcerated people and their loved ones.  All necessary changes will be made in each facility to make these connections a priority.

I am waiting outside the pat-down room in the Visitor’s Center at Stateville Correctional Center.  A grandma is there to visit her grandson.  As she and I are taken into the pat-down room to be cleared to enter the facility, she is told that her outfit is inappropriate and she will not be allowed to see her loved one today.  She has some holes in her jeans.  She protests, explaining that she had never heard that rule before, she has gone into the facility with these pants in the past, and she skipped work today to come see her grandbaby.  The Correctional Officer told her there was a Walmart about 20 minutes down the road. She could go buy a skirt to throw over her clothes.  She left.  I don’t know what ended up happening.  I don’t think anyone cares.

I am waiting outside the pat-down room in the Visitor’s Center at Stateville Correctional Center.  A young mom is holding the hand of her 7-year-old girl who is bouncing around excitedly.  Clearly she doesn’t get to see her dad very often.  The woman approaches the glass which she has to yell through so the correctional officer can hear her.  The officer lazily scrolls through something on her computer and a few minutes later explains that her name is not on the list.  She will not be allowed in today.  Tears well up in the woman’s eyes.  She knows her name is on the list – she was in last week.  It’s her daughter’s birthday and she kept her out of school today so she could spend time with her dad.  The officer repeats that her name is not on the list and she will not be allowed in today.  She was not allowed in.

I am waiting outside the pat-down room in the Visitor’s Center at Stateville Correctional Center.  Another woman is denied entry.  She’s black.  They’re always black.  She stands up for herself.  She knows that she is on that list.  She drove 4 hours this morning and paid for a hotel room tonight so that she could see her loved one.  She will see him.  It is her right.
Apparently not if the correctional officer has anything to say about it.  The officer states that her name is not on the list and she will not be allowed in until the inmate provides them with a list that has her name on it.

I am waiting outside the pat-down room in the Visitor’s Center at Stateville Correctional Center.  The line for getting in to see your loved one is out the door.  It can take them a full hour to get around to letting me enter the facility and I have permanent clearance, an established relationship with some of the officers who work at the visitor’s center and I always get priority entry before anyone else in the room.  Maybe a quarter of the people packed in here will get to see their loved ones today.

~ ~ ~

Prison is generally an unpleasant place, but the Visitor’s Center is by far my least favorite part. It feels like I walk out of the Visitor’s Center and into the prison completely devastated by something I have experienced in there every single week.  The blatant lack of concern for human beings is appalling.  The distaste that all of the correctional officers in Stateville categorically exude for their jobs certainly does not help.  There is a notable lack of consistency for what is allowed.  The system for letting visitors in is not widely understood by the men in Stateville. The time it takes to let people in is unacceptable.  The impossibility of knowing whether you will be rejected prior to spending money and hours trying to see your loved one is damaging and the prison ought to be held accountable for it. The lack of a method of recourse for visitors who are mistreated is intolerable.  I understand that the correctional officers are generally accustomed to treating people like animals, but they need to recognize that at least some of the people they interact with do have rights. The fact that visiting hours don’t extend beyond the school day, so kids have to be taken out of school MAKING IT EXPONTENTIALLY MORE LIKELY THAT THEY THEMSELVES WILL END UP DROPPING OUT OF SCHOOL AND INTO THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM just so they can spend time with their dads should actually be a punishable offense itself.  Whoever implemented that policy ought to be thrown in prison. And of course, there’s always the glaring reality that I am regularly the only white person in the visitor’s center.  Frankly, any of these would be legitimate motivations for overhauling the system for visiting in Stateville Correctional Center – but what all of these stories indisputably have in common is that the people who are trying to spend time with their incarcerated loved ones are kept from doing so.

This has repercussions far beyond each individual day and each denied visit.  Try to imagine maintaining a relationship with your family or friends while you are kept in a cage 22 hours a day.  You can write letters.  The expected turn-around time is 40 days when you allow for the time it takes the officers to screen the mail that enters and exits the facility.  You can make phone calls.  They cost money.  And if you have a job in prison, you are one of the lucky ones and you can expect to make $0.23/hour.  And you can ask them to come visit you.  You are allowed a total of 6 visits each month.  This is not 6 visits for your spouse and 6 visits for your kids and 6 visits for your friends.  This is 6 visits total.  They are between the hours of 8 and 2.  And only one can be on a weekend.  And whenever someone does come see you, they have just been felt up by a person with a badge that they probably rightfully detest and then were locked in a second room until the place was stuffed full enough with people that the officer thought taking a trip of people up to the main building was justified.

If you do not imagine that all of your relationships are significantly strained and that people don’t have plenty of reasons not to come visit you, then your imagination needs some work.  You are a financial burden on your family when you probably wish you could be a support.  Communicating with you causes even more financial burden.  To see you they have to take off work.  And then get violated.

If it is the ultimate goal of the department of corrections to safely release anyone back into society, then the visiting system demands a dramatic change immediately.  

The best way to break the cycle of crime is through the maintenance of meaningful relationships.  Every splinter that the IDOC shoves between incarcerated people and their loved ones is a deliberate act of violence against incarcerated people and their loved ones not only in that moment, but even more powerfully when they are released from prison.

There are 1,400 – 1,800 people who are currently residing in the IDOC because they don’t have anywhere to go.  They are officially released, but homeless.  So they stay in prison.  I don’t know how many of them may be welcomed into someone’s home if they had been able to maintain a meaningful relationship with someone while they were incarcerated, but even if it only added an option for a fraction of those people – or even just one – it would be a change worth pursuing.

I am actually disgusted by the IDOC’s flagrant disregard for the human need for meaningful relationships.  I believe it is impossible for a person to defend the visiting system the way it stands today.  I dare someone to try.

~Written by Katrina Burlet
Katrina has never been incarcerated but would gladly trade places in the prison system with any one of the men on the Stateville Debate Team.  She is confident that giving any one of them their freedom would make the world a better place.

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Eliminate Exceptions

Supporting Argument 13a. All exceptions for parole denial in current law will be eliminated.

Specifically:

“the eligible person’s release at that time would deprecate the seriousness of his or her offense or promote disrespect for the law”
and
“the eligible person’s release would have a substantially adverse effect on institutional discipline”

will never constitute legitimate reasons for someone to be denied parole.

~ ~ ~

Meet 60-year-old Chauncey Harris.  Mr. Harris has been incarcerated for the past 40 years, and because his case occurred before the parole board was abolished in 1978, he is one of the few who still holds a right to be evaluated for release by the parole board.

Mr. Harris first became eligible for parole in 1988, since then he has had over 15 different parole hearings.  From 1988 – 1998, Mr. Harris was unanimously denied parole each year.  After the ’98 hearing and denial, the board invoked an arbitrary policy exception that enabled them (without recourse) to “reset” Mr. Harris’ subsequent parole hearings from seeing the board once every year to once every three years.  Mr. Harris’ next parole hearing was held in 2001 rather than in 1999.  At each of his subsequent hearings in 2001, 2004, 2007 and 2010, the parole board again unanimously denied Mr. Harris parole and issued another three year set.

At the 2013 hearing, Mr. Harris presented a detailed parole plan which highlighted his very positive institutional record for the last two decades.  He held a prison job and the IDOC had recently awarded him nearly eight years of good time credit.  Mr. Harris was still denied parole albeit by a 7-6 vote.  Similarly, Mr. Harris was also placed back on a one-year annual parole set.

Over the next year, Mr. Harris’ behavior remained impeccable. He did not receive a single disciplinary infraction and he maintained his prison job.  His parole plans were the same and the IDOC again awarded him eight years of good time credit.  Additionally, throughout the entire 2014 hearing, there was nothing anyone could point to over the last year that reflected negatively upon Mr. Harris.

However, the now-15-member parole board voted 10-4 to deny Mr. Harris parole and without reason departed from the one-year annual parole set that it had just placed on him the previous year.  They put him back on a three year set.

Mr. Harris is still incarcerated, not because he poses any future risk to society, but because of policy exceptions which the board can arbitrarily invoke and any time to deny someone parole.  The board simply operates as it pleases, without recourse.  These policy exceptions do absolutely nothing to ensure the integrity of the parole process, rather they re-open the same door to bias and discrimination that led to the parole board being abolished in 1978.  Mr. Harris and others are suffering as a result.

By far the most important responsibility vested in parole boards is determining whether a potential parolee will threaten public safety if released.  This is the ultimate question on which parole determinations should rest.  Not exceptions such as whether his or her release would “deprecate the seriousness of the offense” or whether their release would somehow “promote disrespect of the law” or whether their release would, for whatever reason, “have a substantially adverse effect on institutional discipline.”

Such policy exceptions that enable a parole board to deny someone parole irrespective of the ultimate question of public safety do nothing more than interject prejudice into the proceedings and reopen the very same door to bias and discrimination that led to parole being abolished in the first place.  From the looks of it, critics of parole were fairly accurate in their assessment about the parole decisions, especially in light of what has taken place during Mr. Harris’ 40 years of incarceration and over 15-straight parole denials.

At every single one of Mr. Harris’ first 10 unanimous parole denials, his institutional disciplinary record was pointed to as reasons not to grant his release.  However, at each of his subsequent hearings, in 2001, 2004, 2007, and 2010, Mr. Harris’ prison disciplinary record was squeaky clean. Thus, the parole board was unable to rest its decision on that exception, and simply invoked arbitrary policy exceptions to justify its denials each time – without recourse.  The ability to do this has had a substantial and injurious effect upon Mr. Harris.  His incarceration has been prolonged arbitrarily.

It is clear that a person’s release does not hinge upon the ultimate question of public safety, but rather whether the board decides to invoke one of the many arbitrary policy exceptions at that time.  Mr. Harris’ case tells us this much.

To be sure, an exception utilized on several occasions to deny Mr. Harris parole was that his release would somehow encourage other inmates to break institutional rules.  This is ludicrous!  So we are to believe that releasing a man with a quarter century of a spotless record from prison would influence other inmates to break institutional rules? To attempt to justify this is insane.

The facts of Mr. Harris’ case demonstrate that the exception was arbitrarily invoked, because by the time the 2013 hearing was held, the IDOC had awarded Mr. Harris 8 full years of good time credit.  Time that was taken away from him as a result of those very same decades-old disciplinary infractions that the board pointed to as reasons to deny him parole.  One must know that the IDOC only awards good-time credit to those inmates who have maintained excellent disciplinary records in prison.  A fact the parole board was fully aware of.  Thus, at the 2013 hearing, this information was presented to the parole board along with a detailed parole plan that highlighted his very positive institutional record for the last two decades, including both a surrounding and nuclear support system that would aid in his transition into society.  Upon consideration, the board still elected to deny granting of parole, but the vote was 7-6.

By the time the next hearing was conducted a year later, the IDOC had once again awarded Mr. Harris with 8 years of good-time credit in recognition of his impeccable disciplinary progress. Like the 2013 hearing, neither the parole board, IDOC, nor Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office could point to a single act occurring over the last year that negatively reflected on Mr. Harris.  However, not only did the parole board vote to deny Harris’ release, but the vote this time was 10-4 – a significant departure from the 7-6 vote only a year prior.  What’s more is that two of the board members, despite voting in favor of Harris’ parole in 2013, this time cast their votes to deny his release and to place him on a three year set.  Confusing?  You bet.  The same two board members who had just one year prior decided Mr. Harris posed zero risk to public safety suddenly reversed course despite the fact that absolutely nothing had changed to negatively impact their decision.

In fact, at the 2014 hearing, Mr. Harris was able to present other favorable evidence to buttress his prospects to be granted parole.  Clearly from the 2013 hearing that resulted in the 7-6 vote (all other prior being unanimous) to the 2014 hearing, one would expect Mr. Harris to be granted parole or at worse another close vote – especially in view of the newly presented favorable evidence and the fact that absolutely nothing negative had surfaced in the year leading up to the hearing.

This leaves one to wonder exactly by what means parole decisions are made.  It is painfully obvious that something is wrong here.  How, in a year’s time, did two board members change their vote from a yes to a no – and a no for at least three more years?  What occurred from one year to the next?  The answer is nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  The arbitrary and completely unjustified vast departure from the 2013 hearing where Mr. Harris came only one vote shy of being parole is enough proof for any reasonable person to conclude that we must eliminate exceptions that allow parole boards the option to invoke them when and as they see fit to deny someone parole simply because they can.  If we do not, Mr. Harris and thousands of others may never be paroled.

~ Written by Eugene Ross (aka Al Ameen)
Al Ameen was incarcerated at age 20 in 1997 and he is currently ineligible for parole.

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Justice Will Be Served

Supporting Argument 13. Parole decisions will be made with the recognition that justice has been served.

Parole decisions will be made blindly with regard to the nature of the original crime.

Law enforcement officers will not play a role in parole decisions.

~ ~ ~

George Knights and Johnnie Veal both grew up in the Cabrini Green housing projects.  In the early 70’s (during a time of increased gang activity and very bad relationships between the community and police), two officers were shot while on patrol in a park in the middle of the complex.  Shortly after, dozens of cops raided all of the surrounding apartment units and arrested over 100 people.  Knights and Veal were among those arrested.  Veal was a 19-year-old gang leader.  Knights was a janitor, age 26.  They knew of each other but were not friends.  They were tried together and convicted.  During the trial, Knights testified that he had bought bullets the week prior.  There were numerous witnesses with deeply conflicting accounts of what happened – the majority of whom were in the middle of their own trials and had struck deals with the State’s Attorney in exchange for testifying.  (There was also a man who came forward and confessed to the crime.  He was completely ignored.)

Knights and Veal have been incarcerated since 1973 and so retain the right to regular parole hearings.  Both men have maintained their innocence as well as impeccable prison records throughout their incarceration.  Both of these men are undoubtedly rehabilitated – though they didn’t actually commit the crime for which they are incarcerated – and, yet, every time either of them goes up for parole, local law enforcement from around Chicago rent multiple busses and drive bus-fulls of law enforcement officers to Springfiled to flood the rooms of their parole hearings and protest their release.

The parole board, which is comprised mainly of former police, state’s attorneys and law enforcement officials, is especially susceptible to these protests and routinely deny Knights’ and Veal’s requests.  In fact, they’ve flat-out told both men that they will never grant them parole because of the original crime.  No matter how much they have been rehabilitated, cop killers will never be released.

As it currently exists, members of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board are appointed by the Governor’s office and almost invariably reflect his views.  This is a problem considering the fact that almost all of Illinois’ Governors have been white, upper-class, privileged males from affluent communities, while the average person going before the parole board is a member of a marginalized group.  Additionally, for the past four decades, the Prisoner Review Board has been chiefly made up of retired law enforcement officials, including ex-police and prosecutors who, due to their inherent professional bias towards “criminals”, “suspects”, “perps” and “defendants” give greater consideration to the nature of the original crime instead of on other factors that the law requires the board to consider, such as participation in rehabilitative programs, release plans, and the risk of recidivism.  These two factors combine to make Illinois’ parole process unfair, biased, and discriminatory.

The job of a parole board should be to evaluate the person standing before them at that moment and make a determination as to whether or not to grant them parole based on their demonstrated rehabilitation and potential for useful citizenship.  It should not be to reconsider or re-weigh the facts of the original crime, ultimately using the process as an opportunity to re-condemn a person.

What if we do not make this shift?  What if we continue to allow the paroling authority to take the original crime into consideration?

In that case, we would be morally obligated to require the paroling authority to review the entire transcript of the original trial to ensure that the person received a fair trial and that they actually were guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  Unfortunately, Illinois is the model state for miscarriage of justice, police misconduct, prosecutorial abuse of power, and trampling the rights of the indigent.  If a parole board wants to use the original crime as an excuse to keep a person in prison, they better be damn sure that person is guilty.*

In parole hearings that happen for C#’s today, it is common for lawyers and incarcerated people to beg for mercy based off of claims of innocence.  The chorus that continually rises from the PRB is, “It is not our responsibility to determine guilt.”  Yet, they routinely (which in this instance means; in every single denial of parole they extend) deny people based off of the claim that to parole the person would, “deprecate the seriousness of the offense”.  If they are going to use the facts of the original case to condemn a person to indefinite prison time, then they have a moral obligation to review the possibility that the person received an unfair trial and is innocent.

This burden, however, would really muddy the waters in what responsibilities the paroling authority has and how much those obligations overlap with law enforcement, sentencing and prosecutorial responsibilities. We think it best to bypass this confusion altogether and compromise by recognizing that prosecution ought to deal with justice and paroling ought to deal with public safety.

So for simplicity, fairness, and real hope for those who are actually innocent, the parole board should singularly focus on the eligible person’s ability to safely re-enter society.  The parole board, therefore, should reflect the views of the communities to which the eligible people are returning.  With this in mind, it is imperative that the board be comprised of members of the community that:

  1. Recognize and understand that crime is often the result of deeper, underlying social issues, such as homelessness, discriminative hiring practices, or a lack of access to mental health treatment, and
  2. Have a background in addressing those issues, not punishing them!

Who better to decide an eligible person’s parole potential than the people who know the issues one is likely to face upon release?

Equally important, the parole board must be comprised of members of the community who have healthy relationships with other members of the community.  I am not convinced that many people in law enforcement do:

  • In 2009, the Illinois General Assembly had to create the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission in order to evaluate scores of torture accusations made by African American men, against former Police Commander Jon Burge and detectives working under his command.  In 2010, Burge was convicted in federal court of perjury and obstruction of justice.
  • In a 2014 court decision relating to an incident where an off-duty Chicago Police Officer mercilessly pummeled a female bartender, the court found that the CPD operated under a strict “Code of Silence”.
  • Since mid-2016, eight convictions linked to Former CPD Detective Reynaldo Guevara have been tossed out amid allegations that he beat and tortured suspects and coerced witnesses.
  • In November 2016, in what is believed to be the country’s first mass exoneration, 15 men with cases tied to disgraced former CPD Sergeant Ronald Watts had their convictions thrown out because it was found that he fabricated evidence and framed them when they refused to pay him an extortion fee.
  • In 2016, former Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez was kicked out of office largely due to revelations of her role in covering up the brutal murder of an unarmed 16-year-old kid named Lequan McDonald.  He was shot 16 times by Chicago Police Officer Jason VanDyke.
  • In 2017, the town of Cicero had to pay out $15 million in a settlement resulting from an incident where a Cicero Police officer put a gun on a defendant that the officer stole from the police department’s evidence room.
  • Also in 2017, a US Department of Justice Investigation of the CPD found that Chicago seldom held officers accountable for misconduct, noting that since 2012, Chicago had investigated 409 police shootings and found that just two were unjustified.  It also found that the city paid over half a billion dollars to settle or pay judgments in police misconduct cases since 2004 without even conducting disciplinary investigations in over half of those cases.  In fact, Chicago failed to conduct any investigation in nearly half of the police misconduct complaints.

What these examples reflect is both the breakdown in the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they police, and the over-zealous nature of Illinois law enforcement to put people, including innocent people, in prison.  People whose life work was putting people in prison should not be involved in the process of letting people out.  They cannot be trusted to provide the unbiased consideration necessary to measure one’s worthiness to be released and ability to contribute to society.

~Written by Howard Keller
Howard was incarcerated at age 21, and his release is set for 2055 at age 77.
*Please note that Howard does not swear. This paragraph and the subsequent two paragraphs were added by Katrina Burlet.

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PRB Panel of 5

Supporting Argument 12. A Panel of 5 from the Prisoner Review Board will hear each case.

A panel of 5 Prisoner Review Board (PRB) officials will make paroling decisions.  All five officials must be present at decision-making time, and the offender will be released when he or she receives at least 3 of the 5 votes in favor of parole.

The current 15 member PRB parole-decision system has been in existence since 1978, making paroling decisions for C-number cases, which are those people who committed crimes prior to the official abolishment of parole in Illinois in 1978.  There are approximately 100 C-numbers still incarcerated from before 1978.  These elderly offenders are 65 years old or older, and have been incarcerated 40 years or more, largely due to politics.  All 15 members of the PRB may or may not show up to the elderly C-number parole hearings, and once the hearing passes, the individual waits up to 5 years to be seen again.

The time has come to modify these 15 member hearings to match the way that the PRB does clemency hearings.  The 15 members will be broken into three groups of five, meaning each will make a third of the paroling decisions they would otherwise.  This allows for more attention to be paid to each case, and more cases to be heard and processed more quickly.  This upgrade will more effectively deal with Illinois’ overcrowded prison population and will maintain integrity in paroling eligible, rehabilitated offenders who are deserving of a second chance.

~ Written by Alfred Moore
Alfred was incarcerated at age 31 and his release is set for 2089 at age 120.

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Right to Know Why

Supporting Argument 10. Those who are denied have the right to know why.

Every incarcerated person who is denied parole shall receive the complete explanation for their denial in writing from the Prisoner Review Board.

This written explanation will outline exactly which of an individual’s goals for release have been satisfactorily met and which have yet to be attained.  It will include suggestions for how the unmet goals can be accomplished.

Every incarcerated person shall have full rights to challenge their denial of parole via administrative grievance remedies.

Every incarcerated person shall have the right after the exhaustion of administrative remedies to seek relief in the circuit court of a denial of parole by the PRB.

~ ~ ~

I recently had the opportunity to be able to talk to a C# who retains rights to regular parole hearings in Illinois under the pre-1978 paroling laws.  This is what he said about how the parole board has affected him:

“I have appeared before the parole board more than 25 times.  I have been set each       time.  I used to get highly upset for being set when the rationale was the same year     after year.  I have learned not to raise my hopes high when I appear before the board.          This helps me to keep my sanity.”

There are many C#s that feel the same way as this man.  This is why every incarcerated person attending a parole hearing should have a complete explanation by the board, in writing, detailing why they are being denied.  This way, the person has a clear understanding of why they are being denied, as well as direction for what they can work on across the next year in order to be paroled in the future.

Every incarcerated person should have full rights to challenge their denial of parole using established administrative remedies.  Why?  Because this allows him or her to shine light on what may be an unjustified decision.  The burden will be on the PRB to prove, in light of the record, that their decision was sound and unbiased.  These remedies would allow those who are convicted of high profile cases to receive a full and fair hearing, which will also keep political oppression from being the reason that the board denies a person parole.  These appeal remedies hold the PRB accountable for their actions.

Every incarcerated person seeking parole should have the right after the exhaustion of administrative remedies to seek relief in the circuit court from the denial of parole.  Establishing this remedy will allow him or her to challenge the IDOC administrative appeal decisions procedure and/or policy.  This remedy should correct any unjustified decision made by the PRB or administrative decision regarding his or her challenge of their denial of parole.  Having a remedy that is independent of the IDOC is a necessary measure to ensure that a proper review of the record is conducted, with the burden on the PRB to prove their decision is sound and unbiased.  This remedy should restore confidence in a system that has failed so many for too long.

Lastly, every person denied parole should know why they were denied, and what he or she must do before the next parole hearing to prevent the same reason for denial from occurring again.  This allows that person to see exactly what the parole board is looking for and what must be done so that he or she will not face the same, stagnant reasons for denial.  This clear communication should relieve both the board and the person seeking parole of confusion and make the burden of decision making on the PRB lighter.  The paroling decision for the PRB should ultimately be simple.  Once the person seeking parole has completed every one of their initially-outlined requirements, they will be released on parole.  The explanations provided to each person for their denial and suggestions of how to overcome those barriers in the future should be able to restore, even if it is only a small amount, of confidence into that person who knows they have been focusing heavily on their own self-rehabilitation.  For a person who may have been denied parole over 25 times, confidence in a system that has beat them down for so long may never come about.  But with this requirement for the PRB, that person should have real and clear hope for obtaining parole through meeting the requirements listed by the PRB.  This requirement will keep the PRB from presenting new reasons for denial, as any reason for possible denial that has not been initially listed in the first hearing will be considered illegitimate and will be disregarded.

~ Written by Benard McKinley
Benard was incarcerated at age 16, and his release is set for 2101 at age 116.

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Victims Rights

Supporting Argument 8. Victims have the right to involvement in the outlining of goals for the incarcerated person.

Our current criminal justice system takes an adversarial approach to dealing with the issue of crime.  This approach that transforms the human beings involved into combatants that are at odds with each other and pits them against one another in a fight to determine who wins.  In this system, crime is regarded as a violation of a law.  The prosecution of these cases are not depicted as the victim versus the accused defendant, but rather the “State of Illinois” v. the accused.

Crime is more than just a violation of a law.  It is a harm done to someone, sometimes to many people, and in many instances, a physical harm.  People who have been harmed by crime have needs – real needs that are not necessarily provided for through a prosecutor’s demands for justice in the form of a long prison sentence.  The current adversarial approach to dealing with crime often silences the voices and hides the faces and stories of those actually harmed by crime.  By ensuring that victims have a say in what the accused must accomplish before being paroled, we give them a meaningful voice in the process and shift the focus of the criminal justice system back to the people who it should always be on.

~Written by Howard Keller
Howard was incarcerated at age 21, and his release is set for 2055 at age 77.

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Annual Parole Hearings

Supporting Argument for 7) Parole hearings shall occur every year after a person has reached their minimum sentence.

After a convicted person has served the minimum sentence for their class of offense, thus becoming eligible for parole consideration, any and all future hearings shall be held annually, except in special circumstances, to determine whether the convicted person has met, or at least is progressing toward, the goals and objectives set by the board.

~ ~ ~

The frequency of these hearings are vital for the simple fact that, like mile-markers on the side of a highway, they allow the board to see if a convicted person is headed in the right direction.  These annual hearings will not only instill hope, but will also give the convicted person a concrete strategy by which they can evaluate and prioritize the encounters and occurrences that ensue daily within the dynamics of confinement.  Under the current system, a convicted person who is sentenced to, let’s say, 60 years within the truth-in-sentencing scheme, must serve 100% of this sentence.  If he or she is 19 or 20, a 60-year sentence is a death sentence.  Because life as they know it is over, they are offered no incentive to curb, adjust or modify their attitude or behavior.

And what if this particular person is having a frustratingly bad day and happens to clash with someone who is having an equally bad day?  Whether convicted person or officer, what’s to prevent this individual from giving either of them the business?

With hearings being conducted annually, it remains fresh in the mind of a convicted person that which is to be his or her path to freedom. This encourages them to continually deliberate what may or may not be in their best interests to say or do.

Take an individual such as Larry Mack, N12548, who has been incarcerated since 1979.  A man who, after 23 years in prisons spent 10 months out in society on an appeal bond exhibiting all the qualities of one who has been restored to useful citizenship.

If parole existed today in the incorporated model proposed by this bill, would not the board have benefitted as well from the wealth of knowledge that Larry Mack gained during his brief 10-month journey?

~Written by Richard Morris (aka Raheem)
Raheem was incarcerated at age 21.  He was originally on death row, but his release is now set for 2048 at age 75.

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