Supporting Argument 13. Parole decisions will be made with the recognition that justice has been served.
Parole decisions will be made blindly with regard to the nature of the original crime.
Law enforcement officers will not play a role in parole decisions.
~ ~ ~
George Knights and Johnnie Veal both grew up in the Cabrini Green housing projects. In the early 70’s (during a time of increased gang activity and very bad relationships between the community and police), two officers were shot while on patrol in a park in the middle of the complex. Shortly after, dozens of cops raided all of the surrounding apartment units and arrested over 100 people. Knights and Veal were among those arrested. Veal was a 19-year-old gang leader. Knights was a janitor, age 26. They knew of each other but were not friends. They were tried together and convicted. During the trial, Knights testified that he had bought bullets the week prior. There were numerous witnesses with deeply conflicting accounts of what happened – the majority of whom were in the middle of their own trials and had struck deals with the State’s Attorney in exchange for testifying. (There was also a man who came forward and confessed to the crime. He was completely ignored.)
Knights and Veal have been incarcerated since 1973 and so retain the right to regular parole hearings. Both men have maintained their innocence as well as impeccable prison records throughout their incarceration. Both of these men are undoubtedly rehabilitated – though they didn’t actually commit the crime for which they are incarcerated – and, yet, every time either of them goes up for parole, local law enforcement from around Chicago rent multiple busses and drive bus-fulls of law enforcement officers to Springfiled to flood the rooms of their parole hearings and protest their release.
The parole board, which is comprised mainly of former police, state’s attorneys and law enforcement officials, is especially susceptible to these protests and routinely deny Knights’ and Veal’s requests. In fact, they’ve flat-out told both men that they will never grant them parole because of the original crime. No matter how much they have been rehabilitated, cop killers will never be released.
As it currently exists, members of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board are appointed by the Governor’s office and almost invariably reflect his views. This is a problem considering the fact that almost all of Illinois’ Governors have been white, upper-class, privileged males from affluent communities, while the average person going before the parole board is a member of a marginalized group. Additionally, for the past four decades, the Prisoner Review Board has been chiefly made up of retired law enforcement officials, including ex-police and prosecutors who, due to their inherent professional bias towards “criminals”, “suspects”, “perps” and “defendants” give greater consideration to the nature of the original crime instead of on other factors that the law requires the board to consider, such as participation in rehabilitative programs, release plans, and the risk of recidivism. These two factors combine to make Illinois’ parole process unfair, biased, and discriminatory.
The job of a parole board should be to evaluate the person standing before them at that moment and make a determination as to whether or not to grant them parole based on their demonstrated rehabilitation and potential for useful citizenship. It should not be to reconsider or re-weigh the facts of the original crime, ultimately using the process as an opportunity to re-condemn a person.
What if we do not make this shift? What if we continue to allow the paroling authority to take the original crime into consideration?
In that case, we would be morally obligated to require the paroling authority to review the entire transcript of the original trial to ensure that the person received a fair trial and that they actually were guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Unfortunately, Illinois is the model state for miscarriage of justice, police misconduct, prosecutorial abuse of power, and trampling the rights of the indigent. If a parole board wants to use the original crime as an excuse to keep a person in prison, they better be damn sure that person is guilty.*
In parole hearings that happen for C#’s today, it is common for lawyers and incarcerated people to beg for mercy based off of claims of innocence. The chorus that continually rises from the PRB is, “It is not our responsibility to determine guilt.” Yet, they routinely (which in this instance means; in every single denial of parole they extend) deny people based off of the claim that to parole the person would, “deprecate the seriousness of the offense”. If they are going to use the facts of the original case to condemn a person to indefinite prison time, then they have a moral obligation to review the possibility that the person received an unfair trial and is innocent.
This burden, however, would really muddy the waters in what responsibilities the paroling authority has and how much those obligations overlap with law enforcement, sentencing and prosecutorial responsibilities. We think it best to bypass this confusion altogether and compromise by recognizing that prosecution ought to deal with justice and paroling ought to deal with public safety.
So for simplicity, fairness, and real hope for those who are actually innocent, the parole board should singularly focus on the eligible person’s ability to safely re-enter society. The parole board, therefore, should reflect the views of the communities to which the eligible people are returning. With this in mind, it is imperative that the board be comprised of members of the community that:
- Recognize and understand that crime is often the result of deeper, underlying social issues, such as homelessness, discriminative hiring practices, or a lack of access to mental health treatment, and
- Have a background in addressing those issues, not punishing them!
Who better to decide an eligible person’s parole potential than the people who know the issues one is likely to face upon release?
Equally important, the parole board must be comprised of members of the community who have healthy relationships with other members of the community. I am not convinced that many people in law enforcement do:
- In 2009, the Illinois General Assembly had to create the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission in order to evaluate scores of torture accusations made by African American men, against former Police Commander Jon Burge and detectives working under his command. In 2010, Burge was convicted in federal court of perjury and obstruction of justice.
- In a 2014 court decision relating to an incident where an off-duty Chicago Police Officer mercilessly pummeled a female bartender, the court found that the CPD operated under a strict “Code of Silence”.
- Since mid-2016, eight convictions linked to Former CPD Detective Reynaldo Guevara have been tossed out amid allegations that he beat and tortured suspects and coerced witnesses.
- In November 2016, in what is believed to be the country’s first mass exoneration, 15 men with cases tied to disgraced former CPD Sergeant Ronald Watts had their convictions thrown out because it was found that he fabricated evidence and framed them when they refused to pay him an extortion fee.
- In 2016, former Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez was kicked out of office largely due to revelations of her role in covering up the brutal murder of an unarmed 16-year-old kid named Lequan McDonald. He was shot 16 times by Chicago Police Officer Jason VanDyke.
- In 2017, the town of Cicero had to pay out $15 million in a settlement resulting from an incident where a Cicero Police officer put a gun on a defendant that the officer stole from the police department’s evidence room.
- Also in 2017, a US Department of Justice Investigation of the CPD found that Chicago seldom held officers accountable for misconduct, noting that since 2012, Chicago had investigated 409 police shootings and found that just two were unjustified. It also found that the city paid over half a billion dollars to settle or pay judgments in police misconduct cases since 2004 without even conducting disciplinary investigations in over half of those cases. In fact, Chicago failed to conduct any investigation in nearly half of the police misconduct complaints.
What these examples reflect is both the breakdown in the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they police, and the over-zealous nature of Illinois law enforcement to put people, including innocent people, in prison. People whose life work was putting people in prison should not be involved in the process of letting people out. They cannot be trusted to provide the unbiased consideration necessary to measure one’s worthiness to be released and ability to contribute to society.
~Written by Howard Keller
Howard was incarcerated at age 21, and his release is set for 2055 at age 77.
*Please note that Howard does not swear. This paragraph and the subsequent two paragraphs were added by Katrina Burlet.