Pre-debate speech, Bernard’s Story, by Bernard McKinley

Benard’s Story

 

Hello my name is Benard and I would like to share a little bit about myself.

 

I am now 32 years old.  I was born and raised on the West side of Chicago. I was brought up by both my grandparents.  In 2001, at the age of 16 years old, I was charged with first degree murder. A murder that resulted from my own impetuous behavior, which I take responsibility for.

 

In 2004, after a jury trial, I was convicted of this crime and sentenced to 100 years in prison.  I was then transferred to Menard Correctional center where I remained until 2016, when I was transferred to Stateville Correctional Center.

 

During my 12 years at Menard, it took time for me to adjust to this adult environment, given I was only 19 years old at that time – still in disbelief that I had 100 years to do in prison.

 

In 2005-6 , given that Menard had no rehabilitative programs, I self-enrolled in a correspondence program called Criminon Illinois.  This was a way to happiness program that helped me better to have insight into my own behavior and way of thinking. I realized how my behavior so affected those I loved.  I finally began to mature as a young man.

 

From the time I was transferred to Menard, I stayed in the law library trying to learn all I could about the law.  In 2009, I enrolled myself into a career institute and obtained my paralegal diploma.

 

In 2011-12 I became a motivational speaker for at-risk youth in a program called “Incarcerated Voices”.  There I was able to share my life experiences in hopes that I could prevent at least one child from making the same mistakes I did as a child.  I needed to give back to my community – a community I took so much from as a child.

 

As I thought that I was about to be done with my appeals and left to do a 100-year sentence, the federal seventh circuit appeal court ruled that I had a de facto life sentence in McKinley v. Butler, and remanded my case back to the district court while I was ordered to seek resentencing in the state court in light of Miller v. Alabama.  

 

In February 2017, my trial judge ruled that he failed to take into consideration my youth at the time of sentencing and therefore allowed me to file my successive post-conviction petition.  In November 2017, the State’s Attorney agreed that I was entitled to a resentencing hearing. I am now in the process of being resentenced.

 

I had no idea that a Miller case would be decided in 2012 that would eventually lead to me giving back a 100-year sentence.  With that being said, since my time in the Illinois Department of Corrections, I continue to better myself in an environment that initially lacked any type of rehabilitative programs or help.  If not for me being 16 years old at the time I was charged, I would still have a de facto life sentence, ignoring all my rehabilitation that I have achieved over my years in prison.

 

In 2016, I became a proud member of the National Lawyers Guild.  I have become heavily invested in fighting for human rights within prisons, society, and abroad – a dedication I look forward to continuing upon my release from prison.

 

I share this story because there are many more stories, if not the same, better than mine, within these prison walls who also deserve a chance at coming home based upon their maturity and rehabilitation.  The creation of a sound parole board in Illinois for everyone no matter what age or when you caught your case, should be created.

 

Thank you for coming and I hope you enjoy this debate.

 

Pre-debate speech on the need for parole legislation not to be influenced by prosecutors, by Joseph Dole

SPEECH GIVEN BY JOSEPH DOLE

AT STATEVILLE CORRECTIONAL CENTER

ON MARCH 21, 2018

REGARDING PROSECUTORIAL OBJECTION

TO BRINGING A PAROLE SYSTEM TO ILLINOIS.

 

 

 

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. My name is Joseph Dole. I am a writer, artist, and activist. First, thank you all for attending. Before I begin, I would just like to mention the fact that there are currently over 5,000 people in the Illinois Department of Corrections who will die here after many decades in prison if something isn’t done. That’s one out of every nine people currently in IDOC custody, and damn-near every one of us on this stage.

It’s also worth mentioning that every one of the accomplishments listed in my bio in that program you’re holding occurred while in prison. Prior to prison my only educational achievement was a high school diploma from night school. I say that to say this–people do change and grow, even in the darkest places.

With that, I would like to explain why legislators should take prosecutorial opposition to bringing parole back with a grain of salt.

By far, the greatest obstacle to bringing an effective parole system to Illinois, especially one applied to people currently in prison, is state prosecutors. Professor John Pfaff writes in his book Locked In that:

 

Prosecutors have been and remain the engines driving mass incarceration. Acting with wide discretion and little oversight, they are largely responsible for the staggering rise in admissions since the early 1990’s. Any attempts to fight mass incarceration, then, must involve thinking anew about the prosecutors’ incentives[1]

 

They “are political creatures, who get political rewards for locking people up and almost unlimited power to do it,”[2] and the fact that they are “leading opponents of sentencing and other penal reforms”[3] is well-documented.

Moreover, prosecutor associations have undue influence over most victims’ rights groups. This is because, as Professor Marie Gottschalk noted in her book Caught, “they helped create a conservative victims’ rights movement premised on a zero-sum vision of justice that pitted victims against offenders.”[4] This explains why there are very few non-revenge based victims’ rights groups out there, and why prosecutors marginalize them. Prosecutors only acknowledge those that demand ever-harsher sentences for crimes – which increases prosecutorial power. When actual crime survivors are surveyed, however, a majority state that they “are in favor of shorter prison sentences and increased investment in crime prevention and rehabilitation.”[5]

With the epidemic of wrongful convictions, especially here in Illinois, sociologists, psychologists, and legal analysts have been examining one of the main culprits – prosecutorial misconduct. As a result, evidence continues to accumulate showing that many prosecutors become severely biased and unable to objectively consider new information that doesn’t support their theory of the crime or person they think is responsible.

It begins with the dehumanization of the defendant.[6] Prosecutors are trained to “depersonalize” by only referring to the person as either “defendant” or some derogatory term like “animal” or “monster”.[7] Writing in the Georgia Law Review, Mary Bowman explains how “this dehumanization can have subconscious, neurological effects in that people may fail to activate the part of the brain typically involved in social perception when viewing members of highly stigmatized groups.”[8]This is just one type of the moral disengagement prosecutors practice to make it easier for juries to convict, but which also affect prosecutors themselves.

In the context of parole, dehumanization prevents prosecutors from being able to view people convicted of crimes as human, capable of change, and deserving of a second chance.

There is a long list of cognitive biases and tunnel vision that prosecutors pick up on the job. Not only do they obtain case files from police who may have had tunnel vision throughout the investigation and zeroed in on an innocent person as the culprit,[9] but prosecutors may have confirmation bias where they seek out information that supports their theory and discard evidence that disputes it.[10]

Then, if the person is convicted, it seems to confirm they were right, making the prosecutor more resistant to accepting that they were wrong. This is known as status-quo bias.[11] Similarly, prosecutors are affected by both hindsight bias[12] and outcome bias[13] which are closely related and basically mean that people erroneously judge a decision by whether it resulted in a satisfactory outcome.

All of theses biases, in conjunction with both institutional pressures to win at all costs, also known as a conviction psychology,[14] and what is known as “group think”[15] – where people within an organization basically go along to get along – have led to many innocent people being imprisoned and prosecutors obstinately refusing to accept that fact.

In terms of parole, all of these same biases make prosecutors extremely reluctant to believe that the life sentence they fought so hard to obtain was not really necessary to keep the public safe.

Prosecutors are often racially biased as well. A study released by the Women Donors Network showed that in 2014, 95% of prosecutors were white and 79% were white men.[16] The director of their Reflective Democracy Campaign, noted that “[t]he tremendous power and discretion of those positions among one demographic group virtually guarantees inequality in our criminal justice system.”[17]

Gottschalk explains that in the federal court system, “research suggests that federal prosecutors, not federal judges, are the most persistent source of racial disparities in sentencing,” and that “they were nearly twice as likely to charge African American men with an offense carrying a mandatory minimum sentence compared to white men.”[18] Due to the fact that federal and state prosecutors have the same biases, it is highly likely that racial disparities in sentencing of people in state court are similarly attributable to state prosecutors. As Gottschalk also noted, “[t]he findings of two centuries of research on mandatory sentences are compelling: they…contribute to wide unwarranted disparities in punishment, especially racial disparities.”[19]

One small, but powerful, example of open racism at play in the Cook County State’s Attorneys’ Office which was clearly in line with the process of dehumanization and other moral disengagement tactics, aw well as indicative of a conviction psychology, was the “Two-Ton Contest,” which had prosecutors angling “for assignments to cases involving the heaviest criminal defendants”.[20] “The first prosecutor to convict four thousand pounds of flesh won.”[21] Around the office, this was also known as “Niggers By The Pound.”[22] Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, who studied the culture of the Cook County Courthouse and worked in the prosecutors office herself, also noted that “[p]rosecutors are the driving force behind the Supreme Court’s approval of racial profiling…and pretextual steps.”[23]

Nor is it always conscious racism. In Locked In, Pfaff writes that implicit racial bias may cause prosecutors to “view crimes committed by black people as more serious than the same offenses committed by otherwise identical white people.”[24]

There’s one other probable component of the effects of racial bias of prosecutors, and that’s its effect on victims’ rights groups. As noted earlier, prosecutors had a heavy hand in creating the current conservative victims’ rights groups. Moreover, just as prosecutors are overwhelmingly white and the suburbs which are also overwhelmingly white and “still exert undue influence on who is elected to prosecute disproportionately urban crime;”[25] prosecutors also influence who is considered a victim, what rights they have, and more. Van Cleve found that among prosecutors in Cook County “there is no recognition that people of color and victims are often one and the same.”[26] Thus, it is highly likely that most of today’s victims’ rights groups aren’t truly representative of the majority of victims and thus may be racially biased themselves.

Besides the fact that many prosecutors are biased, unethical, and incapable of being objective in reviewing a person’s sentence; the main reason prosecutors should be excluded from the conversation about reinstating a parole system in Illinois is because parole should be about two inextricably linked questions which most prosecutors have absolutely no knowledge or experience that would assist them in answering: First, is the person coming up for parole still a threat to society?; and second, can the person be returned to useful citizenship as our state constitution seems to require?[27]

The first question is the one prosecutors erroneously feel they possess knowledge that can help them answer. They feel that knowing the intricate details of the individual crime gives them some type of insider knowledge into whether that person is a threat to society. However, prosecutors: A) refuse to consider that people become less dangerous as they grow older[28]; B) are often wrong about the facts or have hidden exonerating evidence[29] that they don’t want to come to light; C) have political motivations for maintaining the status quo in both the conviction and sentence;[30] and D) ignore the fact that it “is well established in the criminology literature that ‘the current offense that one commits is a very poor predictor of the next offense.’”[31]

Regarding the second question, prosecutors don’t follow defendants’ growth and maturation throughout their prison sentences. Instead, they hold a static, biased view of each person, believing he or she remains the evil monster that the crime, in the prosecutor’s mind, proves the defendant to forever be. Prosecutors possess no information about who the person is now, and as we’ve seen with the clemency process where they receive this information in the petition but still have a blanket policy of objecting to every petition, it would make little difference if they did.

The bottom line is that, just as the Urban Institute recently recommended,[32] a parole system should be concerned with who the individual is now and not what crime he or she may or may not have committed decades ago. This information is more the domain of the Illinois Department of Corrections and qualified experts on any newly established parole board.

For all of the reasons I’ve described, any parole board should be free of any prosecutors or ex-prosecutors as members. Their biases and lack of relevant expertise will only hinder the process.

In conclusion, as others have noted, “public officials seeking to meaningfully reform the criminal justice system will be stymied if they give prosecutors a veto or a significant voice over a final proposal.”[33] Here in Illinois it has gotten so bad that criminal justice reformers are actually writing legislation based on what prosecutors are willing to accept. The needs to stop immediately. Enough is enough. We can’t achieve reforms, true reforms, by appeasing the people who oppose them the most.

Thank you for your time.

 

Joseph Dole K84446

Stateville Correctional Center

P.O. Box 112

Joliet, IL 60434

https://www.facebook.com/JosephDoleIncerateratedWriter/

http://www.realcostofprisons.org/writing/

 

[1]  John Pfaff, Locked In: The True Causes Of Mass Incarceration And How to Achieve Real Reform            (Basic Books, New York, NY) 2017 p. 206.

[2]  Adam Gopnik, “How We Understand Mass Incarceration: A new book argues that, in the effort to fix the

prison epidemic, we are addressing the wrong things and missing the true problem.” The New Yorker, April 10, 2017; reviewing Pfaff supra note 1.

[3]  Marie Gottschalk, Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics (Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey) 2015, p.266-267 citing several sources including “In the case of penal reform in Illinois see Steve Bogira, ‘Pat Quinn, Political Prisoner: A Case Study in How Electoral Politics Stymies Real Reform’, Chicago Reader, October 28, 2010.’” See also Pfaff supra note 1, at p.132; and Jessica Pishko Twitter, “Prosecutors Are Banding Together to Prevent Criminal-Justice Reform: A new investigation shows that DA associations are thwarting changes to the death penalty, sentencing, and more,” The Nation, October 18, 2017.

[4]  Gottschalk, supra note 3, at p.267 citing Marie Gottschalk, The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics of Mass Incarceration in America (Cambridge University Press, New York) 2006, chs. 4-6.

[5]  “A Matter Of Time: The Causes And Consequences of Rising Time Served in America’s Prisons”. Urban Institute, July 2007, p.42.

[6]  Mary Bowman, “Mitigating Foul Blows”, 49 Ga.L. Rev. 309,330 (2015).

[7]  See e.g., Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, Crook County: Racism And Injustices In America’s Largest Criminal Court (Stanford University Press, Stanford, California) 2016, p.71.

[8]  Bowman supra note 6, at p. 368; citing Phillip Atiba Goff, et al. Not Yet Human; Implicit Knowledge, Historical Dehumanization and Contemporary Consequence, 94 J. Personality & Soc. Psychol. 292, 293 (2008).

[9]  Bowman supra note 6, at p.329; Daniel S. Medwed, Prosecution Complex: America’s Race to Convict And Its Impact On the Innocent (New York University Press, New York) 2012, p.22.

[10]  Bowman supra note 6, at p.329; Medwed supra note 9, at p.22-24,and 127.

[11] Medwed supra note 9, at p.127; citing Daniel S. Medweed, “The prosecutor as Minister of Justice; Preaching to the Unconverted From the Post-Conviction Pulpit,” 84 Wash.L. Rev. 35, 51-53 (2009), and Alafair S. Burke, “Improving Prosecutorial Decision Making: Some Lessons of Cognitive Science,” 47 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 1587, 1612 (2006).

[12] Bowman supra note 6, at p.359.

[13] Bowman supra note 6, at p.359-360.

[14] Heather Schoenfeld, “Violated Trust: Conceptualizing Prosecutorial Misconduct,” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, Vol.21, No.3 p.250-271 (August 2005), at p.252; Bowman supra note 6 at p.329-330.

[15]  Medwed supra note 9, at p.210, note 26, citing Aviva Orenstein,”Facing the Unfaceable: Dealing with Prosecutorial Denial in Postconviction Cases of Actual Innocence,” 48 San Diego L. Rev. 401,427 (2011); Barbara O’Brien, ”A Recipe for Bias: An Empirical Look at the Interplay Between Institutional Incentives and Bounded Rationality in Prosecutorial Decision Making.” 74 Mo. L. Rev. 999, 1044 (2009).

[16]  Joe Watson, “Study:95 Percent of Elected Prosecutors are White,” Prison Legal News, February 2017, p.44.

[17]  Id.

[18]  Gottschalk supra note 3, at p.267, citing Sonja B. Starr and M. Marit Rehavi, “Mandatory Sentencing and Racial Disparity: Assessing the Role of Prosecutors and the  Effects of Booker,” Yale Law Journal 123.1 (2018), 28.

[19]  Gottschalk supra note 3, at p.262, citing Michael Tonry, “The Mostly Unintended Effects of Mandatory Penalties: Two Centuries of Consistent Findings” in Michael Tonry, ed. Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, v.38 (Chicago University Press, Chicago) 2009, p.65-114; Traci Schlesinger, “The Failure of Race Neutral Policies: How Mandatory Terms and Sentencing Enhancements Contribute to Mass Racialized Incarceration,” Crime & Delinquency 57.1 (2011); p.56-81.

[20]  Medwed supra note 9, at p.80.

[21]  Id.

[22]  Steve Bogira, Courtroom 302: A Year Behind The Scenes In An American Criminal Courthouse (Vintage Books, New York) 2005, p.69; Van Cleve supra note 7, at p.54.

[23]  Van Cleve supra note 7, at p.145.

[24]  Pfaff supra note 1, at p.146.

[25]  Pfaff supra note 1, at p.171.

[26]  Van Cleve supra note 7, at p.171.

[27]  Illinois Constitution of 1970, Article 1, Section 11.

[28]  Pfaff supra note 1, at p.190-192; 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,” Stanford Law School, Stanford Criminal Justice Center (Sept.2011),p.17; Gottschalk supra note 3, at p.189.

[29]  Margaret Z.  Johns, “Reconsidering Absolute Prosecutorial Immunity,”2005 BYU L. Rev. 53, 62-63 (2005); Radley Balko, “The Untouchables: America’s Misbehaving Prosecutors, And The System That Protects Them,” The Huffington Post (US Edition) Aug. 1, 2013, Updated Aug. 5, 2013.

[30]  See notes 1-3 above.

[31]  Gottschalk supra note 3, at p.168; quoting Robert J. Sampson, “The Incarceration Ledger: Toward a New Era in Assessing Societal Consequences,” Criminology & Public Policy 10.3 (2011), 823.

[32]  “A Matter of Time” supra note 5, at p.50.

[33]  Bert “Criminal Justice Reform Will Never Happen If We Defer to Prosecutors, Experts Say.” The Open File: Prosecutorial Misconduct and Accountability, Jan. 29, 2018. www.prosecutorialaccountability.com;     citing Rachel Barkow and Mark Osler, “Designed to Fail: The President’s Deference To The Department Of Justice In Advancing Criminal Justice Reform.” William & Mary Law Review, Vol. 59, No. 2, p. 387-474 (2017).

Pre-debate speech on the misuse of natural life sentences, by Oscar Parham

Are Natural Life Sentences Being Applied In The Way They Were Meant to Be?

By Oscar Parham ~ a.k.a Smiley

 

Here is a fun fact that society may not know: the state of Illinois claims to focus its system on rehabilitation rather than retribution.  However, the rampant over-sentencing and gross misuse of life sentences tell a very different story.

 

The overuse of life sentences in the state of Illinois is a sad reality that needs to be addressed.  But many politicians are reluctant to address it for fear of the dreaded label “soft on crime.” But is showing mercy being soft on crime?

 

An 18-year-old kid is convicted under the theory of accountability.  Accountability means to aid, abet, or facilitate the commission of a crime.  It says that the person who is the look-out man is just as guilty as the person who pulled the trigger, even if the lookout man didn’t know if the person was going to pull the trigger.  

 

But concerning this 18-year-old kid: he had no gun.  He wasn’t present during the shootings, and he had a minimal criminal record with no history of violence.  This 18-year-old kid was sentenced to a mandatory natural life sentence – the same amount of time that would have been given to a serial killer if he were sentenced under the present Illinois sentence statute.

 

With this in mind, I would like to ask the question: “Are natural life sentences being applied the way they were meant to be?”  In order to answer this question, we have to consider for whom natural life sentences were meant. For an observation of this question, consider words of former democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.

 

During a democratic town hall meeting in Ohio, an African American man who had been wrongfully imprisoned and released after 38 years on death row, asked Clinton if she would continue in her stance for the death penalty, seeing that it is a flawed system.  While he answer was mostly vague, the good that came from her response was a clear definition of the type of people she had in mind when she voted for the death penalty bill.

 

According to Clinton, the death penalty was meant for the worst of the worst: John Wayne Gacy or the Oklahoma City Bomber.  These are the types of people that Clinton considered a serious threat to society.

 

The late Barton Leisure, professor emeritus of philosophy at Pace University, wrote a paper on the death penalty called “The Death Penalty is Permissible.”  In his paper, he quotes Justice Potter Steward in his majority opinion in Gregg v. Georgia saying: Capital punishment may be the appropriate sanction in extreme cases as the community’s belief that certain crimes are themselves so grievous that the only adequate response is the death penalty.

 

Maybe this is what Clinton had in mind when she voted for the death penalty bill, or maybe she had in mind what Lord Justice Denning told the British Commission from the same paper; “some crimes are so outrageous that society insists on capital punishment because the wrongdoer deserves it irrespective of whether it is a deterrent or not.”

 

In either case, from these quotes, we have an understanding that the death penalty was meant not only for the most outrageous crimes, but also for those people who are considered the worst of the worst.

 

Mainly due to incidents like the Ohio incident mentioned earlier, in 2003, Governor Ryan commuted all death row prisoners to natural life sentences.  It was officially abolished through legislation in 2011. With the abolition of the death penalty, the harshest form of punishment in Illinois became mandatory natural life sentences.  

 

Since we now know that the death penalty was meant for the worst of the worst, and natural life sentences are an alternative to the death penalty; how is it that natural life sentences have become commonly applied to accountability cases, juveniles, and young adults (those ages 18-25 who recent brain science shows have the greatest capacity for rehabilitation).

 

If a study were done, I would estimate that at least 60% of the people who have life sentences in Illinois would not be considered the worst of the worst.  Many were convicted under the theory of accountability. Some just simply made mistakes. And others were young and convicted under the theory of accountability.

 

For example, take my situation: I am the 18-year-old kid convicted under the theory of accountability that I mentioned earlier. With that being said, there is no question about the seriousness of my case.  But the argument made by the Supreme Court in Miller V. Alabama can also be made in my case. In Miller, the court stated: “we agree with defendant that a mandatory sentence of natural life with no possibility of parole grossly distorts that factual realities of the case and does not represent defendant’s culpability such that it shocks the moral sense of community.”

 

I was offered an eleven-year plea agreement at 50% without having to testify for the state against any of my co-defendants.  Based on my level of involvement in the case and because I was an 18-year-old kid with no history of violence, the state felt that eleven years was a sufficient sentence.  This says that I was not considered by the state to be beyond rehabilitation, irredeemable, nor the worst of the worst.  In fact, they felt that in 5 ½ years, I would be fit to rejoin society. When I didn’t take the deal and was eventually found guilty, I was sentenced to mandatory natural life in prison.

 

What changed?  How was this leap from 5 ½ years to forever justified and rationalized?  OR as a wise man once asked, how is it that I was considered rehabilitatable after 5 ½ years, but when I don’t take the deal, now I’m beyond rehabilitation.  Moreover, Is as just a kid who needed time to grow up and reflect as the eleven-year plea suggested? Or was I a monster who threatened the very fabric of society like the natural life sentence suggests?  According to the state, one day I was the former, the next day I was the latter. If I had taken the plea agreement, I would have been home in 1995.

 

In the 28 years of my incarceration, I have had minimal record of infractions with no history of violence, much like my pre-prison record.  So which is the better indicator of who I am: the conviction under accountability theory, or the 48 years of minimal trouble with non-violence? Do I sound like somebody who should be labeled as the worst of the worst?

 

Sadly, natural life sentences are not being applied the way they were meant to be applied, but with a new approach, an openness to change and a bit of creativity, things can be different.

 

In closing, making sure that natural life sentences are applied correctly does not mean just letting all prisoners go free and ignoring responsibility for crime.  It’s about cutting in place a fair system so that true justice can prevail. Just as prisoners must change and reform, so must the system.

 

Pre-debate speech on rehabilitation, by Lester Dobbey

REHABILITATION FIRST

By Lester Dobbey

 

Good morning ladies and gentlemen, state representatives, PRB, IDOC officials, members of the community.  And to all of my fellow brothers and Professor Burlet, I greet you by saying, “peace be upon you.”

 

Today, I stand before you all as a prisoner equipped and ready to present a question of great importance:

 

If I rehabilitate myself with no official incentives, who shall be a witness to record the methods and progress of my rehabilitation within a maximum IDOC facility?

 

PLEASE TAKE NOTICE that “true rehabilitation” under the Illinois State Constitution, article 1 Section 11 shall mean: “to restore to useful citizenship.”

To Stateville’s Debate team, it shall mean, “to transform the mind, nature, and character of a person’s former capacity in destructive activity and behavior.”

 

“Inauthentic rehabilitation” shall mean: “The inability to transform a complacent reality; a rehabilitation that is deprived of its dimensions in action; idle chatter; an indifferent ‘Blah!’; empty words and activity that has made a commitment to impossible transformation; and, silent conditions, nourished by falsity.”

 

These definitions are crucial as I tell you a short story of my life while free, and my life while in prison.  The story contains important insights designed to raise awareness about the struggle for rehabilitation while in a maximum IDOC facility.  The contents are based upon true events.

 

When I was a child in pre and middle school, to about 3rd grade, I was considered to be a smart child who made all A’s and B’s.  Entering the 4th grade, I made all F’s.  I was passed to the next grade, making all F’s in 5th, 6th, and 7th grade.  I didn’t even commit the times table to memory until 8th grade, where my grades elevated to B’s and C’s.  Now, going to Carver High School, it was a living nightmare.  Every day there were multiple gang fights, inside and outside the school, that were severely dangerous.  There was no place to feel save, not even in my own neighborhood. I dropped out after failing freshman year and joined a Chicago street gang and the violence thereof.  

 

Juvenile detention and Illinois Youth Centers became my safe summer homes as I tried, but still did not accomplish much in school.  After a final release from IYC at age 19, I would be arrested, charged, and convicted of murder and attempted murder five months later.  During pre-trial custody, I passed the G.E.D., guessing half of the answers. At age 21, I was sentenced to 51 years of imprisonment and sent to Menard Correctional Center.

 

Menard is a maximum-security facility, that operated with prisoners being locked-down 23 hours a day.  I quickly learned solitude within the 4 walls and slipped into a silent, untreated, depression. The following 2 years I learned that I had forgotten how to learn.  IDOC provided no obligations besides, “Don’t violate our rules.” There were no schooling or programs offered to those prisoners with a high school or better education.  Although there was a vocational program that only allowed 15 students out of 3,000, and provided 350 jobs to the same 3,000.

 

By age 23, I began to teach myself how to read and write all over again.  I studied criminal law and the obligations bound to IDOC and the state of Illinois under statutory and constitutional mandates to rehabilitate prisoners to useful citizenship.  Now learning law, I became zealous for change but was dissatisfied with IDOC’s inauthentic rehabilitation. I filed an internal grievance against Menard’s lack of rehabilitative programming.  I complained that I was:

 

  1. Enduring oppressive treatment;
  2. Being denied employment;
  3. Denied training and skills; and,
  4. Denied a teacher of: humane virtues, honesty, self-control, respect, integrity, dignity, compassion, forgiveness, consideration and love.

 

At the conclusion of the grievance, I sought relief in the form of training programs that would restore my person to society civilized.  The counselor, grievance office and warden of Menard denied my request because a job and education were based upon institutional need, and because prisoners were responsible for their own rehabilitation and needed to take an active role.  Basically, I had to rehabilitate myself.

 

I filed a mandamus against the warden, asking the court to compel IDOC to rehabilitate me.  My pleadings were inartful, but well-understood. However, I lost the case, but appealed.

 

On appeal, the warden argued that my contentions of him owning a legal duty to develop programs of rehabilitation and to restrain from oppressive treatment, “were too vague,” because they could not be enforced without immersing the court in the day-to-day management of Menard to determine whether the offered education and training programs are adequate, or the treatment of inmates, “oppressive.”  The warden furthered his argument by stating that I “had no legal right to participate in education and training programs and that IDOC was under ‘no clear duty’ to provide specific educational programs.” The appellate court agreed and affirmed the appeal. I lost.

 

Over ten years later, the IDOC has not obligated me or enforced any plan for rehabilitation for any prisoner within a maximum security facility.  This is vital while considering legislation for parole boards and parole plans, because whenever IDOC has “no clear duty,” to rehabilitate persons within their care, custody, and control, the actual threat of public safety is ever so near, and the expectancy of recidivism has found its road map.  

 

So, I ask you again…  If I rehabilitate myself with no incentives, who shall be a witness to record the methods and progress of my rehabilitation?

 

As this debate team stands here before you today, let this day be recorded in your minds that:

 

WE ARE REPRESENTATIVES OF PROGRESS… AS WE ADVANCE OUR MINDS FOR A GRADUAL BETTERMENT OF SOCIETY;

 

WE ARE REPRESENTATIVES OF RENEWED CHARACTER… CHARACTER TO WHICH APPLIES THE TOTAL SUM OF OUR MORAL QUALITIES THAT SHOULD BE JUDGED APART FROM OUR INTELLIGENCE, COMPETANCE OR SPECIAL TALENTS;

 

WE ARE REPRESENTATIVES OF PERSONALITY… PERSONALITY WHICH DISTINGUISHES EACH OF US AS INDIVIDUAL PERSONS;

 

AND AT LAST, WE ARE REPRESENTATIVES OF TEMPERMENT… A RESILIENT TEMPERMENT THAT IS ACQUIRED THROUGH EXPERIENCE AND EVIDENCED BY HOW WE MEET THE DIFFICULTIES OF LIFE AND HANDLE SENSITIVE SITUTATIONS.

 

So think about it, rehabilitation first.  

 

Thank you, that’s my time.

 

Pre Debate Speech on misapplication of Natural-life sentences by Oscar Parham

Are Natural Life Sentences Being Applied In The Way They Were Meant to Be?

By Oscar Parham ~ a.k.a Smiley

 

Here is a fun fact that society may not know: the state of Illinois claims to focus its system on rehabilitation rather than retribution.  However, the rampant over-sentencing and gross misuse of life sentences tell a very different story.

 

The overuse of life sentences in the state of Illinois is a sad reality that needs to be addressed.  But many politicians are reluctant to address it for fear of the dreaded label “soft on crime.” But is showing mercy being soft on crime?

 

An 18-year-old kid is convicted under the theory of accountability.  Accountability means to aid, abet, or facilitate the commission of a crime.  It says that the person who is the look-out man is just as guilty as the person who pulled the trigger, even if the lookout man didn’t know if the person was going to pull the trigger.  

 

But concerning this 18-year-old kid: he had no gun.  He wasn’t present during the shootings, and he had a minimal criminal record with no history of violence.  This 18-year-old kid was sentenced to a mandatory natural life sentence – the same amount of time that would have been given to a serial killer if he were sentenced under the present Illinois sentence statute.

 

With this in mind, I would like to ask the question: “Are natural life sentences being applied the way they were meant to be?”  In order to answer this question, we have to consider for whom natural life sentences were meant. For an observation of this question, consider words of former democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.

 

During a democratic town hall meeting in Ohio, an African American man who had been wrongfully imprisoned and released after 38 years on death row, asked Clinton if she would continue in her stance for the death penalty, seeing that it is a flawed system.  While he answer was mostly vague, the good that came from her response was a clear definition of the type of people she had in mind when she voted for the death penalty bill.

 

According to Clinton, the death penalty was meant for the worst of the worst: John Wayne Gacy or the Oklahoma City Bomber.  These are the types of people that Clinton considered a serious threat to society.

 

The late Barton Leisure, professor emeritus of philosophy at Pace University, wrote a paper on the death penalty called “The Death Penalty is Permissible.”  In his paper, he quotes Justice Potter Steward in his majority opinion in Gregg v. Georgia saying: Capital punishment may be the appropriate sanction in extreme cases as the community’s belief that certain crimes are themselves so grievous that the only adequate response is the death penalty.

 

Maybe this is what Clinton had in mind when she voted for the death penalty bill, or maybe she had in mind what Lord Justice Denning told the British Commission from the same paper; “some crimes are so outrageous that society insists on capital punishment because the wrongdoer deserves it irrespective of whether it is a deterrent or not.”

 

In either case, from these quotes, we have an understanding that the death penalty was meant not only for the most outrageous crimes, but also for those people who are considered the worst of the worst.

 

Mainly due to incidents like the Ohio incident mentioned earlier, in 2003, Governor Ryan commuted all death row prisoners to natural life sentences.  It was officially abolished through legislation in 2011. With the abolition of the death penalty, the harshest form of punishment in Illinois became mandatory natural life sentences.  

 

Since we now know that the death penalty was meant for the worst of the worst, and natural life sentences are an alternative to the death penalty; how is it that natural life sentences have become commonly applied to accountability cases, juveniles, and young adults (those ages 18-25 who recent brain science shows have the greatest capacity for rehabilitation).

 

If a study were done, I would estimate that at least 60% of the people who have life sentences in Illinois would not be considered the worst of the worst.  Many were convicted under the theory of accountability. Some just simply made mistakes. And others were young and convicted under the theory of accountability.

 

For example, take my situation: I am the 18-year-old kid convicted under the theory of accountability that I mentioned earlier. With that being said, there is no question about the seriousness of my case.  But the argument made by the Supreme Court in Miller V. Alabama can also be made in my case. In Miller, the court stated: “we agree with defendant that a mandatory sentence of natural life with no possibility of parole grossly distorts that factual realities of the case and does not represent defendant’s culpability such that it shocks the moral sense of community.”

 

I was offered an eleven-year plea agreement at 50% without having to testify for the state against any of my co-defendants.  Based on my level of involvement in the case and because I was an 18-year-old kid with no history of violence, the state felt that eleven years was a sufficient sentence.  This says that I was not considered by the state to be beyond rehabilitation, irredeemable, nor the worst of the worst.  In fact, they felt that in 5 ½ years, I would be fit to rejoin society. When I didn’t take the deal and was eventually found guilty, I was sentenced to mandatory natural life in prison.

 

What changed?  How was this leap from 5 ½ years to forever justified and rationalized?  OR as a wise man once asked, how is it that I was considered rehabilitatable after 5 ½ years, but when I don’t take the deal, now I’m beyond rehabilitation.  Moreover, Is as just a kid who needed time to grow up and reflect as the eleven-year plea suggested? Or was I a monster who threatened the very fabric of society like the natural life sentence suggests?  According to the state, one day I was the former, the next day I was the latter. If I had taken the plea agreement, I would have been home in 1995.

 

In the 28 years of my incarceration, I have had minimal record of infractions with no history of violence, much like my pre-prison record.  So which is the better indicator of who I am: the conviction under accountability theory, or the 48 years of minimal trouble with non-violence? Do I sound like somebody who should be labeled as the worst of the worst?

 

Sadly, natural life sentences are not being applied the way they were meant to be applied, but with a new approach, an openness to change and a bit of creativity, things can be different.

 

In closing, making sure that natural life sentences are applied correctly does not mean just letting all prisoners go free and ignoring responsibility for crime.  It’s about cutting in place a fair system so that true justice can prevail. Just as prisoners must change and reform, so must the system.

 

 

Pre Debate Speech on Rehabilitation by Lester Dobbey

REHABILITATION FIRST

By Lester Dobbey

 

Good morning ladies and gentlemen, state representatives, PRB, IDOC officials, members of the community.  And to all of my fellow brothers and Professor Burlet, I greet you by saying, “peace be upon you.”

 

Today, I stand before you all as a prisoner equipped and ready to present a question of great importance:

 

If I rehabilitate myself with no official incentives, who shall be a witness to record the methods and progress of my rehabilitation within a maximum IDOC facility?

 

PLEASE TAKE NOTICE that “true rehabilitation” under the Illinois State Constitution, article 1 Section 11 shall mean: “to restore to useful citizenship.”

To Stateville’s Debate team, it shall mean, “to transform the mind, nature, and character of a person’s former capacity in destructive activity and behavior.”

 

“Inauthentic rehabilitation” shall mean: “The inability to transform a complacent reality; a rehabilitation that is deprived of its dimensions in action; idle chatter; an indifferent ‘Blah!’; empty words and activity that has made a commitment to impossible transformation; and, silent conditions, nourished by falsity.”

 

These definitions are crucial as I tell you a short story of my life while free, and my life while in prison.  The story contains important insights designed to raise awareness about the struggle for rehabilitation while in a maximum IDOC facility.  The contents are based upon true events.

 

When I was a child in pre and middle school, to about 3rd grade, I was considered to be a smart child who made all A’s and B’s.  Entering the 4th grade, I made all F’s.  I was passed to the next grade, making all F’s in 5th, 6th, and 7th grade.  I didn’t even commit the times table to memory until 8th grade, where my grades elevated to B’s and C’s.  Now, going to Carver High School, it was a living nightmare.  Every day there were multiple gang fights, inside and outside the school, that were severely dangerous.  There was no place to feel save, not even in my own neighborhood. I dropped out after failing freshman year and joined a Chicago street gang and the violence thereof.  

 

Juvenile detention and Illinois Youth Centers became my safe summer homes as I tried, but still did not accomplish much in school.  After a final release from IYC at age 19, I would be arrested, charged, and convicted of murder and attempted murder five months later.  During pre-trial custody, I passed the G.E.D., guessing half of the answers. At age 21, I was sentenced to 51 years of imprisonment and sent to Menard Correctional Center.

 

Menard is a maximum-security facility, that operated with prisoners being locked-down 23 hours a day.  I quickly learned solitude within the 4 walls and slipped into a silent, untreated, depression. The following 2 years I learned that I had forgotten how to learn.  IDOC provided no obligations besides, “Don’t violate our rules.” There were no schooling or programs offered to those prisoners with a high school or better education.  Although there was a vocational program that only allowed 15 students out of 3,000, and provided 350 jobs to the same 3,000.

 

By age 23, I began to teach myself how to read and write all over again.  I studied criminal law and the obligations bound to IDOC and the state of Illinois under statutory and constitutional mandates to rehabilitate prisoners to useful citizenship.  Now learning law, I became zealous for change but was dissatisfied with IDOC’s inauthentic rehabilitation. I filed an internal grievance against Menard’s lack of rehabilitative programming.  I complained that I was:

 

  1. Enduring oppressive treatment;
  2. Being denied employment;
  3. Denied training and skills; and,
  4. Denied a teacher of: humane virtues, honesty, self-control, respect, integrity, dignity, compassion, forgiveness, consideration and love.

 

At the conclusion of the grievance, I sought relief in the form of training programs that would restore my person to society civilized.  The counselor, grievance office and warden of Menard denied my request because a job and education were based upon institutional need, and because prisoners were responsible for their own rehabilitation and needed to take an active role.  Basically, I had to rehabilitate myself.

 

I filed a mandamus against the warden, asking the court to compel IDOC to rehabilitate me.  My pleadings were inartful, but well-understood. However, I lost the case, but appealed.

 

On appeal, the warden argued that my contentions of him owning a legal duty to develop programs of rehabilitation and to restrain from oppressive treatment, “were too vague,” because they could not be enforced without immersing the court in the day-to-day management of Menard to determine whether the offered education and training programs are adequate, or the treatment of inmates, “oppressive.”  The warden furthered his argument by stating that I “had no legal right to participate in education and training programs and that IDOC was under ‘no clear duty’ to provide specific educational programs.” The appellate court agreed and affirmed the appeal. I lost.

 

Over ten years later, the IDOC has not obligated me or enforced any plan for rehabilitation for any prisoner within a maximum security facility.  This is vital while considering legislation for parole boards and parole plans, because whenever IDOC has “no clear duty,” to rehabilitate persons within their care, custody, and control, the actual threat of public safety is ever so near, and the expectancy of recidivism has found its road map.  

 

So, I ask you again…  If I rehabilitate myself with no incentives, who shall be a witness to record the methods and progress of my rehabilitation?

 

As this debate team stands here before you today, let this day be recorded in your minds that:

 

WE ARE REPRESENTATIVES OF PROGRESS… AS WE ADVANCE OUR MINDS FOR A GRADUAL BETTERMENT OF SOCIETY;

 

WE ARE REPRESENTATIVES OF RENEWED CHARACTER… CHARACTER TO WHICH APPLIES THE TOTAL SUM OF OUR MORAL QUALITIES THAT SHOULD BE JUDGED APART FROM OUR INTELLIGENCE, COMPETANCE OR SPECIAL TALENTS;

 

WE ARE REPRESENTATIVES OF PERSONALITY… PERSONALITY WHICH DISTINGUISHES EACH OF US AS INDIVIDUAL PERSONS;

 

AND AT LAST, WE ARE REPRESENTATIVES OF TEMPERMENT… A RESILIENT TEMPERMENT THAT IS ACQUIRED THROUGH EXPERIENCE AND EVIDENCED BY HOW WE MEET THE DIFFICULTIES OF LIFE AND HANDLE SENSITIVE SITUTATIONS.

 

So think about it, rehabilitation first.  

 

Thank you, that’s my time.