Eliminate Exceptions

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

Specifically:

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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