Lead argument for parole based on statistical evaluation, by Al Ameen (Eugene Ross)

It is the stance of the government team that the primary concerns in deciding how to implement a parole system in Illinois are 1) upholding justice, 2) public safety, and 3) minimizing the cost to taxpayers.


Upholding justice is the primary concern of the justice system.  When someone commits a crime, there ought to be punishment, and we believe that the punishment should remain equal among equivalent crimes.  What this means for this debate, is that we think anyone in Illinois who commits the same crime should have to serve the same amount of time before becoming eligible for parole. This is the most just way for the system to operate.


And we are not alone in thinking this.  In the status quo, Illinois operates on a same-crime-same-time principle.  The problem with Illinois’ current application of this principle is that it is substantially more severe than is necessary or practical.


Current sentencing laws in Illinois require that non-violent offenders serve 50% of their sentence in prison, violent offenders serve 85% in prison, and those convicted of murder serve 100%.  


For fiscal year 2014, the state appropriated and spent almost $1.3 billion on the prison budget. Off budget items, including pension contributions and group health benefits for state corrections employees, were an additional $600 million spent on the adult corrections system.


The total cost of Illinois’s prisons—to incarcerate an average daily population of 45,551—was therefore more than $1.9 billion, of which 32.5 percent were costs outside the corrections budget. (2010) In total, this makes the average annual cost per inmate $38,268.


Many states, including Maryland and Texas require ½ of a court-imposed sentence to be served in prison, whereas there are states like Montana that require ¼ of a person’s sentence to be served in prison.  We propose a middle ground. We will adopt the standard of the state of New Jersey – requiring people to serve 1/3 of their sentence before becoming eligible for parole.


This is also the standard sentence that the federal parole board had when it was in operation, AND the standard that Illinois had for a few brief years prior to abolishing parole back in 1978.


The first thing this will do is uphold justice.  One quarter to one third of a sentence is a standard amount of time to serve before becoming eligible for parole.  People who have broken the law in Illinois will continue to serve time for their crimes, and now it will be at a rate that is considered reasonably standard across the United States.


We believe that granting parole consideration is in itself is an act of justice.  Along with our neighbors in Wisconsin, we on the government team believe that being released on parole is not an entitlement, but being considered for parole is.  


This also upholds justice in that it maintains a fair and equal requirement for equal offenses.  The primary criticism about Illinois’ old parole board that led to its abolishment in 1977 was that it was biased.  We do not want to repeat that mistake, and we believe the first step to achieving that is establishing a policy that doesn’t allow for discrimination.


Now, we understand that not every person is going to be released after serving 1/3 of their time.  We think that’s a good thing. We think there are definitely legitimate reasons to deny people parole.  But we think, by and large, most of the people serving time in Illinois will serve significantly less.


In the 70’s, our nation put a lot of energy behind being tough on crime.  Illinois isn’t the only state that abolished parole and increased sentencing in that decade.  Across the subsequent 40 years, most states responded to the over burgeoning prison population, massive costs to tax payers, and harms to public safety that resulted from the over-incarceration to which this period led. Most states have reinstated their parole systems and cut back sentencing.  Mississippi made perhaps the most remarkable change, reducing in 2008 the percentage of sentences that nonviolent offenders must serve from 85 percent to 25 percent.


The impact of this in Illinois would be massive, and we have a few estimates about the amount of money it would save the state.    


For every one year that a person does not serve in prison, the state saves roughly $40,000.  I am currently serving LWOP which means I have not and will not have hope for release during any part of my incarceration.  But LWOP is a whole other topic, so, for argument’s sake – let’s say I had been given the standard sentence for my crimes. I would be serving 69 years.  That would put me up for parole in 2022, after serving 23 years. Given that the parole board did not deem me a danger to society, my release would save the state $1.84 million.  


And even that is assuming that the cost of incarcerating me remains equal every year of my sentence.  In reality, I cost much less to incarcerate now than I will 40 years from now. The reason for this is two-fold.  

  1. The cost of incarcerating people in Illinois is rapidly escalating.  Whereas today it costs nearly $40,000 to incarcerate someone, only 8 years ago, in 2009, the IDOC reported that it cost less than $25,000 to incarcerate someone for a year.
  2. Elderly inmates cost up to 3x as much to incarcerate per year.


So, if we adjust our estimation for increasing costs of incarceration both across the state and across an inmate’s lifetime, paroling me in 5 years would actually save the state $14.5 million.


In fact, we did the math.  If each of the 13 men on our team were released after serving 1/3 of his time, the state would have saved $68.4 million.  That’s 13 of us. There are tens of thousands of people serving time in the state of Illinois as we speak.


When we discuss releasing people from prison, alongside justice, the other primary consideration is public safety.  The main concern here is this: how will the board determine which people would threaten public safety if released?


On the government team, we advocate for an actuarial system.


In 1970, when the IDOC was created, Governor Ogilvie said that, “In Illinois we keep our adult felons incarcerated for periods longer than 45 other states.”  Across the last 50 years, we have adopted every national trend that made us “tougher on crime” and frankly, only a handful of minor policies that make us “smarter on crime.”  We now keep people incarcerated for periods longer than any other state.


This has obviously proven to be problematic and unmanageably expensive.  However, we do not want to open up the doors to early release only to see an increase in crime rates, so we must have a board that implements a method that is effective in determining the dangerousness of potential parolees.


We propose the adoption of an actuarial evaluation system similar to the one utilized by the state of Virginia.


In place since 1997, the Virginia Risk Assessment Instrument is a single sheet of paper that measures an offender’s likelihood of recidivism based off of 11 factors with a proven relationship to future risk.  The evaluation measures some demographic information, information pertaining to the current offense, and any previous offenses. The factors are assigned various quantities based on their predictive power. If a person’s score comes out below 35 points on the 71-point scale, then their sentence is diverted from prison time to probation.  


The only tweak that we propose to the system is that, while Virginia has been using it to determine who to put on probation, we propose using it to determine who to put on parole.


The ultimate impact of utilizing this kind of system is three-fold: it is efficient, it is cheap, and it is just.

Its efficiency is truly unparalleled.  Through the development and refinement of this system, social scientists have been able to hand a judge one sheet of paper, wait mere moments while they answer the questions, tally the answers, and predict with over 85% accuracy whether or not the person standing before them will reoffend.

Considering that currently 2/3 of prisoners released across the US return to prison within 3 years, this would lead to at least a 258% improvement in our protection of public safety.


We can easily cut the time the board members spend evaluating a given case down to a fraction of what they would have spent otherwise and with next to no effort save the state over $14 million with a single evaluation-  if you’re paroling me, of course.


At the end of the day, it seems clear to me that this is the best way for Illinois to move forward.  Illinois needs to cut spending, and we are confident that we can do it in a way that upholds justice and maintains public safety.  Let’s cut the unnecessary 2/3.