Right to Representation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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