Article: Incarcerated Activists Raise the Bar on Parole

By Joseph Dole and Shari Stone-Mediatore

Over-incarceration in this country takes many forms. One form that is
particularly egregious in Illinois is that of keeping people imprisoned for
years, or even decades, beyond the time that they pose any risk to public
safety—and even beyond their life expectancy.

Illinois stands out in this “lock ‘em up and forget about ‘em” form of
over-incarceration because the state has no inclusive system of
discretionary parole. For the vast majority of the 40,000 men and women
incarcerated in Illinois, the state has no mechanism for early release and
no periodic assessment of whether their continued incarceration is
necessary for public safety.  If nothing changes, the state faces an
impending crisis of geriatric prisons, and at least 5,600 people will die
behind bars.

The Abolition of Parole

Illinois abolished parole in 1978. The elimination of parole came on the
heels of a conservative backlash to a 1972 Supreme Court ruling that for
several years made the death penalty unconstitutional. Following this
ruling, former death row prisoners were given life sentences, which in
Illinois came with parole hearings after 11 years and 3 months of
incarceration. Pressure built to remove people with life sentences
permanently from society; thus the introduction of life-without-parole

In addition, the parole board had been racially biased, which garnered
bipartisan criticism. Rather than trying to ameliorate the bias, however, the
state abolished parole altogether. Parole was eliminated, but racism
persisted in the the form of longer sentences handed out by the courts to
black defendants. Today, while blacks comprise only 15 per cent of Illinois’
population, they make up 68 per cent of the people sentenced to die in prison.

Recent decades also have produced changes in the sentencing laws, which
have doubled and tripled the average time served for the same crimes. If
before 1978 all people imprisoned in Illinois were reviewed for parole, but
people of color had to wait longer for release, now thousands of people—a
disproportionate number of whom are black—have been condemned to spend the
remainder of their lives in prison.

Illinois’ First Parole Legislation since 1978

With the exit doors shut behind thousands of incarcerated Illinoisans,
justice advocates have turned their attention to reestablishing parole.
Restore Justice has championed a Youth Parole Bill, which Governor Pritzker
recently signed into law as the state’s first parole bill since 1978.
Public Act 100-1182 provides parole opportunities to individuals under 21,
who do not fall under excluded categories and who are sentenced or
resentenced after June 1, 2019. Restore Justice Director Jobi Cates
describes the bill as the “first chip away from the rock that is juvenile
life without parole in Illinois.”

The Illinois Prisoner Review Board also continues to evaluate for parole
about 100 people who were convicted prior to 1978. These so-called
“C-numbers” have spent four to five decades in prison and are now elderly. Many
have educated themselves and mentored younger prisoners, and have allies on the
outside willing to provide them with jobs and housing. Nonetheless, they
continue to be denied parole by board members who focus on the one thing
that the candidates cannot change: their original conviction.

Meanwhile, over 90 per cent of incarcerated Illinoisans still have no eligibility
for discretionary parole.

A New Coalition for Parole

A group of men incarcerated at Stateville prison initiated a more inclusive
movement for parole. In a prison debate class taught by Katrina Burlet in
2017/2018, the men chose parole as their topic. Upon researching parole
systems across the nation, they drafted a 21-point proposal for a system
that would regularly and fairly assess for release every individual
imprisoned in the state. In March, 2018, in the first event of its
kind at Stateville, the men presented arguments about the
intricacies of different parole systems to a group of invited guests, which
included 10 per cent of the state’s legislators. Several of the guests, including
Representative Rita Mayfield, were inspired by the men to work on parole
legislation, informed by the men’s arguments. Despite the success of the
event, the Department of Corrections responded by cancelling the class and
banning the teacher.

The men of the debate class were not deterred. The authors of this article
launched a website,, that shares resources about
Illinois justice advocacy and brings the voices of incarcerated individuals
into discussions about parole. They were joined by a handful of activists
inside and outside of prison to form Parole Illinois.

Now an official state-registered organization co-directed by Joseph Dole
and Rebecca W. B., the coalition has been educating the public about the
devastation that over-incarceration has wrought on our communities and the
need to shift the focus of the Illinois Department of Corrections from
warehousing to rehabilitating people, so that every incarcerated person has
a chance to come home. It also has been forming alliances with other racial
and social justice movements and preparing to mobilize for fair and
inclusive parole legislation.

Fairness and inclusivity are key themes. Parole Illinois has called not
only for the return of discretionary parole but for the use of a
risk assessment instrument to serve as the primary factor in evaluating
eligibility for parole. They also have called for the regular auditing of
that instrument for racial bias; revised qualifications for parole board
members that ensure a more broadly educated, racially diverse, and less
political make-up; and clear criteria for rehabilitation for every
incarcerated individual.

Inclusivity is also paramount. An inclusive parole system would not release
every incarcerated person. It would require, however, that every person
have a rehabilitation plan and an opportunity, after a reasonable period of
incarceration, for fair parole hearings. No person can be merely warehoused
and disregarded due to the category of the crime they were convicted for.

Exempting people from rehabilitation and parole eligibility based on the
category of their crime is unjust for several reasons. First, many of the people who have been charged for multiple murders and sex crimes (the crime categories typically excluded from reforms) have been found guilty under a theory of accountability, which
extends the realm of legal accountability to people with only indirect
connection to an act. In these cases, people are charged for “multiple
murders” and “sex offenses” even when when they did not actually commit
those acts. Second, as the many recent exonerations demonstrate, faulty and
coerced testimony often lead to wrongful convictions for multiple murders
and sex offenses. Parole can serve as a safety valve for people who have been wrongfully convicted but lack the resources to prove their innocence.

Finally, categories of crime conviction tell us little about a person’s
growth in prison and current risk to public safety. In fact, contrary to
popular myths about “violent criminals” and “sex offenders,” studies show
that people who have been convicted of murder and sex offenses have the
lowest recidivism rates.

In less than a year, Parole Illinois has mobilized hundreds of people. Over
50 family members participated in Parole Illinois’ recent public meeting.
Over 300 incarcerated men and women have written to Parole Illinois seeking
to get involved and requesting campaign packets, which were jointly
composed by writers and artists inside and outside of prison, printed for
free by supporters, and stuffed into envelopes by student volunteers.

For these activists, parole advocacy goes deeper than reforming the system.
It is about sharing resources and knowledge across prison walls; responding
to the rupturing of our communities by building community back up; linking
decarceration with efforts to address the homelessness, poverty, racism,
and addiction that lie beneath the criminalization of individuals; and
affirming our capacity to be more than circumstances and categories and to
reassess our labels in light of the human beings who transcend them.

The Importance of a Second Chance, by Marni Yang. Parole Illinois Essay-Contest First-Place Winner

The Importance of a Second Chance

Marni Young

It has been said that a society can be measured by the manner in which it treats the least of its citizens. With that in mind, the most marginalized portion of any society is arguably the prison inmate. No other demographic is afforded less consideration in terms of basic human rights, and less ability and resources to assert the few legal rights they retain. Illinois has one of the most archaic systems of corrections in the entire nation, with an abysmal track record in terms of treatment of its prisoners. The state has been referred to by many as nothing more than a “warehouse for human bodies”.

Former I.D.O.C. Director John Stalworthy in a 2016 conversation with the father of an offender at Logan Correctional Center, called the system “medieval”. Considering Stralworthy’s impressive resume, which includes the development and administration of corrections in Iraq, as well as an authoritative book on the subject, this is a powerful statement. In an even more significant context, he declared the Illinois prison system “unfixable”, and resigned from the position less than three months after being appointed.

The Mission Statement for the Illinois Department of Corrections states, “We will reduce recidivism by offering seamless, efficient services that are geared toward offender rehabilitation.” However, this statement is, in reality, nothing more than a transparent, thinly-veiled public relations stunt containing no veracity whatsoever. In true hypocritical fashion, I.D.OC. does the polar opposite. No other state suffers from such a dearth of programs and opportunities for its offenders. Two of I.D.O.C.’s main objectives in its efforts toward rehabilitation is the education of its offenders both in an academic capacity as well as in the development of a sense of responsibility. Yet I.D.O.C. fails miserably at both. The school system within I.D.O.C. is a colossal embarrassment which comes nowhere near meeting a minimum Illinois Board of Education standards. Further, those with long sentences are not eligible for educational programs. Of the nearly 2000 women incarcerated at Logan Correctional Center , only 200 (approximately) attend school. Of those enrolled in school, less than ten are long-timers or lifers.

Steady employment is a major factor in instilling a sense of responsibility in an offender, yet there are not nearly enough job opportunities for inmates within the individual facilities. With so few jobs available, the majority of the population sits around all day, everyday, rotting away with nothing to do. Not only does this situation run counter to I.D.O.C.’s mission statement, it serves to increase disciplining incidents, thereby increasing safety and security risks for both staff and other inmates. In other words, there are too many people sitting around with entirely too much time on their hands. This is inconsistent with I.D.O.C.’s promise to “value the well being of I.D.O.C. staff and offenders…”

Those hit the hardest by these dismal prospects are those with very long life sentences. For those of us who fall into this category, the situation becomes both a mental health and a human rights issue. The United States has been labeled the “incarceration nation”, locking up more of its citizens than any other country in the world. According to USA Today, the global average is .5%, while the U.S. incarcerates almost 1% of its people – double the world average. In most European countries, a “life sentence” means a maximum of 25 years. In other words, Europe recognizes that no one is irredeemable. In the U.S., however, there exists an inability to distinguish between probation and punitive sentencing for offenders, or to determine who presents a “danger to society” and who does not. Older inmates, and those who have been imprisoned for violent crimes and/or long periods of time do not become repeat offenders. Recidivism rates in Illinois are staggering 67%. However, the rate for those convicted of violent crimes, over the age of 50, who have served long sentences drops to just 2% for men and 1% for women.

Consider this logic. If someone commits a crime, that person is said to “owe a debt to society” and sent to prison, where the state and the taxpayers must then bear the burden of feeding, clothing, sheltering, and providing medical care for that offender – the cost of which increases exponentially as the offender ages. Does this not increase one’s “debt owed to society” rather than decrease it. If I.D.O.C. intended on keeping the resolutions in its Mission Statement, then it would be providing every opportunity for an offender to decrease that debt, and this goal can best be served by allowing the individual to achieve a meaningful purpose…to become a contributing member of society in some capacity which ameliorates the wrongdoing committed.

Statistics show that extremely long sentences and life terms do not lower violent crime rates, but a true commitment to rehabilitation does. I.D.O.C.’s counselors, who are often responsible for assisting with rehabilitation goals, are notoriously loathe to perform any useful function, and are generally uncooperative and even hostile toward inmates. Each offender, (according to the Mission Statement once again) should be individually assessed, a goal plan formulated, and every effort made to support and assist the offender in reaching those goals. (Currently, I.D.O.C. seems to take great satisfaction in doing just the opposite.) Part of this effort must include a complete revision of a system broken beyond repair, and part of that overhaul includes assessing terms of incarceration – who we keep locked up and for how long. Illinois is one of only two states in the entire country without a parole system. This is a direct result of the erroneous logic that only those convicted of nonviolent offenses can be rehabilitated. Time and time again, this fallacy in reasoning has been proven wrong. In fact, much of the time, it is the nonviolent offenders who carry the highest recidivism rates.

A Parole system in Illinois is necessary because parole is often the last remaining hope and opportunity for those who have exhausted all available remedies to prove that they have become worthy of release and can be an asset to their community.

If I.D.O.C.’s mission is truly offender rehabilitation, then this is a direct challenge to live up to that statement. When will Illinois stop the hypocrisy, and start putting its money where its mouth is?

Essay on Parole and Artwork by Miguel Morales

First and foremost, I appreciate you taking the time out to stop and read through some of these postings. I’m writing you this in search for understanding and support on an important issue that we’re up against behind these walls.

The muzzle has been put on us (prisoners) for far too long now. We’ve always been made to feel like we’re simply stuck and can’t do anything to change the way we’re being treated back here because of stigmas made against us, lifestyles we were living, choices made when we were younger, and because it works, so much better for them and their agenda and pockets if we just keep our mouths closed and not say anything. But one truth is that the “system” has led some of the public to believe that the solution is to just lock us all away with extreme sentences and throw away the key, as if that’s what’s going to fix society’s problems. And clearly that hasn’t worked then and it definitely isn’t working today.

I’ve already been in prison for 17 years on a gang-related murder that happened in 2001, and I’m still facing 19 more years that are left to serve on my sentence. Because of sentencing laws in Illinois, I’ll have to serve all (100%) of those 19 years that remain without the possibility of ever earning any good time, no matter what type of program I complete or positive behavior that I show. So the question has to be asked- what incentive is there then to even “do good”? Why don’t we even have a parole board anymore? Where we can go in front of and show the positive that we’ve been doing (on our own), the changes we’ve made, the benefits we’ve made both for ourselves and those around us? We haven’t had a parole board in Illinois since 1978 and the sentencing just gets harsher and harsher. Why? Is prison without a parole board working? Are harsher sentences since 1978 working? With the crime-wave happening in Chicago today, I think we all know the answer to that question.

A fair and just parole board here in Illinois, will give us the opportunity to show and prove our ability to do differently. To change our ways and change our thinking, and take us from the mentality of not having anything to lose to having everything to gain back. It would bring a sense of hope knowing that there’s that possibility of being free again one day. And will very possibly be your next door neighbor, living next to you and your children, living on your block, in your neighborhood. So you have to ask yourself, what type of “neighbor” would you want him or her to be? Rehabilitated and helped in his growth with a different mindset and outlook on life? Or the same individual they were when they first came through these walls and learned nothing more but to become a better criminal while here?

To me it absolutely matters what’s offered to us in prison because what is or isn’t offered to us, reflects directly on how we will succeed or not succeed when we make it back to society. Programming in our prisons, smart sentencing, and having a parole board available to us absolutely matters. But today our fight is with us finally setting a fair parole board established for us here in Illinois We’re hoping to get the proper legislation proposed on this and if you’re with us in this struggle and chose to support us, all of the needed info is here.

We might need your support again in the future so I’m hoping this isn’t a one-time deal for you! I’m also an artist who does oil paintings. Mostly for fun, some for family and loved ones and some on commission. There’s a boatload of talent trapped behind these walls. Mine’s is just one of the many. Enjoy what you see and always feel free to write directly.

Thank you for stopping. Thank you for reading and thank you for any and all support!

Always in strength,

Thoughts from Steven Scotti on why Illinois needs a parole system

If you were to walk into any prison cell in the state you would quickly notice one thing. Although there are two inmates in this room, it was clearly only DESIGNED for one: there is only ONE desk, or only ONE chair, to maybe only ONE shelf to put your stuff. Every cell in the Illinois Department of Corrections is holding ONE more inmate than it was designed to hold. [Note from Parole Illinois: Some Illinois prison cells have two persons but no chair, no desk, and no shelf.]

If you speak with the staff, they will TELL you they are under staffed. If you talk with the inmates, they will TELL you there are too many inmates. Depending on which side of the fence you are on, you could either see this from the perspective of being understaffed, or the perspective of being over populated!!

The Illinois Department of Corrections currently holds double the capacity of inmates than it was DESIGNED to hold. With the recidivism rate well over 50%,

Is it really hard to understand how we got here? Not at all…

I think what you would find in most Illinois prisons is the same thing. On one hand, we DO see inmates being released. But if they ARE being released, WHY then, are the numbers of incarcerated men and women in Illinois still increasing?

I think it has to do with people we are CHOOSING to release. For the large majority of the people in the Department of corrections, their TYPE of sentence is what is referred to as DETERMINATE SENTENCING. After a convicted person is sentenced, he or she is sentenced to serve a predetermined amount of time in prison. After completion of that DETERMINATE sentence he or she is AUTOMATICALLY released into society.

The problem we are experiencing is this. For every person we release in this manner, one is re-entering the system. WHY?? Why for every one person we release, is one re-offending and coming back into the system that was designed and responsible to correct them?

The problem with determinate sentencing is this. It determines that a person will be RELEASED…. It does NOT determine if they are REHABILITATED…. it doesn’t determine if they did anything measurable within their incarceration to CHANGE!! When you doing NOTHING MORE than DETERMINE that a person will leave the system, you are doing nothing more than randomly releasing inmates!! If you are still asking WHY our system is broken, why recidivism is over 50%, THIS is the reason why.

Parole is NOT a system of early release. It is a system of RESPONSIBLE RELEASE!! It is a system that EVERY SINGLE INMATE gets a independent evaluation before he or she is released from prison. And if they have not USED their incarceration to meet the goals of society, of the system… then THEY DO NOT LEAVE PRISON!! Parole is a system that SOCIETY, THE TAX PAYERS OF THE STATE, THE SYSTEM ITSELF, DETERMINES if the goals have been met… NOT some predetermined number that was determined by a court that has not has any post contact with a criminal defendant in years or possibly decades!!

How do we release inmates and determine if the goals of the system has been met, if we have not even checked in with the inmate to SEE HOW they have spent their incarceration they were given??

When society sentences someone to prison, we send them there with a penological goal in mind. There is nothing about determinate sentencing that allows us to measure what, if anything, that person has done to meet that goal.

When we recognize as a society, as a system, that something is not working, we need to abandon it. We owe ourselves, as a society, as tax payers, as inmates, not, only the chance, but the obligation to be and do something better.

Parole is not what we we’re doing…. it is what we SHOULD be doing. It is what WORKS. We have already DETERMINED what doesn’t!! We pay over a BILLION DOLLARS a year to fund failure. We are going to release inmates…. let’s own our RESONSIBILITY and DUTY to release them responsibly.

Parole Reform White Paper

Reforms to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board: Qualifications and Duties

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




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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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

Illinois Parole Board Voting Record

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

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


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




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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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




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

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