Good afternoon, my name is Joseph Dole. I am one of the cofounders of Parole Illinois and am currently the Policy Director.
Every year people die in IDOC custody, the vast majority due in part to over-sentencing. COVID-19 is highlighting this fact because it is attacking the elderly and infirm, many of whom have spent decades enduring harsh prison conditions, much of that time unnecessarily. They die lonely deaths for no other reason than incarceration politics, and in a vain attempt to satiate the insatiable appetite some people have for revenge.
For the past few decades, the State has grudgingly acknowledged that hundreds of innocent people are being wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. It is now time to acknowledge that there are also thousands of guilty people who are wrongfully imprisoned as well, due to the fact that their prison sentences are longer than necessary for public safety.
The experts agree, mass incarceration’s main driver is excessive sentences for serious and violent crimes. Thus, we cannot address mass incarceration without reducing such sentences.
The Governor and others have recently voiced support for early releases of “non-violent offenders,” and insinuate that this shows they still consider public safety as the main priority. Not only is this insufficient to address mass incarceration, but if public safety is the main priority, then they should have no problem releasing “violent offenders.” That’s because people convicted of violent offenses are actually safer to release than those in prison for non-violent offenses. In other words, they have lower recidivism rates and even a lower likelihood of committing violence if released.
The thousands of people currently serving excessively long sentences are doing so due to racism, fear-mongering, dehumanization, political exploitation, and the false promise that harsher sentences are needed to deter crime.
Politicians of both parties have used tough-on-crime rhetoric to get elected for decades, telling the public over and over again that even longer and harsher sentences are the only way to deter people from committing crimes. In Illinois, this facilitated the abolishment of parole, the passage of accountability and felony murder laws, Truth-In-Sentencing, the Habitual Criminal Act, gun add-ons, life -without-parole and de facto life sentences, and increased sentencing ranges for nearly every crime imaginable.
It seems logical, threaten someone with a severe enough consequence and you would think they would refrain from committing a crime. Unfortunately, this type of punitive deterrence is a myth, as has been shown by nearly every reputable study of deterrence conducted.
For punitive deterrence to work there are several prerequisites necessary. The person has to know the consequence, believe he or she will be caught and face that consequence, and have the ability to rationally weigh the costs and benefits of committing a crime versus not committing it.
Punitive deterrence doesn’t work, because, not only do people not know what sentencing laws stipulate, but people don’t believe they will be caught, let alone charged and convicted. Moreover, people who commit crimes are almost never rational actors. Not only are 40% of people who commit crimes juveniles or young adults with immature prefrontal lobes, but most are either under the influence of drugs or alcohol, are mentally ill, or act in the heat of the moment while in anger without thinking clearly.
Craig Findley, the chairman of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, who has interviewed over 25,000 incarcerated Illinoisans, told a subject matter only hearing on parole, that he likewise concludes that “long sentences are not a deterrent to crime.” Nonetheless, every day men and women are receiving excessively long and inhumane prison sentences under the guise that they will deter people from committing crimes.
What is never mentioned when arguing for more severe sentences to deter crime is the inhumanity of the practice, itself. You are inflicting more punishment than someone deserves or that is penologicaly justifiable. Each person who has their prison sentence increased (and their life, as well as the lives of his or her family, increasingly destroyed) to allegedly deter others, is irrationally being held accountable for whether others will or won’t commit a crime. For the State to increase the pain and suffering of one individual to coerce the behavior of another is morally repugnant.
We currently have thousands of people sentenced to die in prison in a vain attempt to coerce others to follow the law. Let me show you how incarceration politics has affected three of my friends’ lives. All three were sentenced to death by incarceration.
My fellow NEIU graduate, Darrell Fair, was coerced at gunpoint into a false confession by one of Jon Burge’s underlings. He was then wrongfully convicted and sentenced to spend 100% of a 50-year sentence in prison thanks to the Truth-In-Sentencing law. His liberty was violently stolen by a corrupt legal system, and his release has been continuously denied due to incarceration politics. First, via over-sentencing where he cannot be paroled; then when the Torture Inquiry Relief Commission refused to examine non-Burge claims; then when the TIRC opened up to include non-Burge claims but was insufficiently funded; then when the prosecutor, for months, neglected to divulge the fact the Detective McDermott refused to testify under oath that he did not assault and threaten Darrell; and now for several more months as the court is shut down due to the COVID-19 crisis.
Darrell is a 52-year-old asthmatic with a college degree and enormous community support. His innocence should have set him free decades ago. Even if he were guilty, he should not be in prison today as he has served sufficient time by historical standards and poses no threat to society.
Will society collectively shrug if he too contracts COVID-19 and dies, like society shrugged off the thousands of other deaths over the past few decades in the IDOC due to over-sentencing and incarceration politics? Would society care more if people learn that his wrongful conviction will cost taxpayers millions of dollars, and his wrongful death would add to that tab?
How many additional men and women could have already been safely at home with their families if politicians had not played incarceration politics with the young adult parole bill over the last few years? Political calculations alone kept it from being retroactive, inclusive, and extending to those who were under 25 when the crime occurred. I know at least two of my friends who might still be alive today if it had been retroactive, etc. — James Scott and Joseph Wilson.
James was 18 when he committed the crime he was incarcerated for. He was a kind old man who had spent decades in prison, and simply wanted to get out to reunite with his family. Joseph was a writer, artist, and entrepreneur who had also served decades in prison and simply wanted to regain his freedom so that he could give back to his community. Both are now dead. While COVID-19 may have prevented them from taking another breath, it was incarceration politics that put the bag over their heads. They will be missed dearly.
There are probably a thousand other people convicted as juveniles or young adults that deserve a chance to go home by the same logic that passed HB531 last year. Instead, they are all sitting in prison unable to protect themselves from COVID-19, let alone return home to help their families in these dire times.
If Illinois had not abolished parole, etc., all three of my friends would likely have returned home to their families a decade or more ago. They would undoubtedly become upstanding and contributing members of their communities. I can say that because I know their character, not just the false label society placed on them. Instead of being home however, the State spent millions of dollars to continue to incarcerate them — two of them unto death.
These are just a few examples of the thousands of people who deserve a chance to return home, but who are being forced to grow old and die in prison unnecessarily.
While COVID-19 has made it undeniable that there are thousands of people incarcerated in Illinois who pose no threat to society and don’t deserve a death sentence, many of the same political calculations of old prevent acknowledging thousands of others. It is high time to stop playing politics with people’s lives.
We are tired of watching our friends die in here for no other reason than to benefit the political careers of yesterday’s politicians.
Many have noted that the COVID-19 situation in prisons is a moral test that our society is failing abysmally. However, it is simply shining a spotlight on an even more abysmal moral failure — that of mass incarceration and incarceration politics in general.
I often wonder, if mass incarceration is the civil rights issue of our era, then how will our grandchildren view not only the architects and champions of mass incarceration, but also those in power today who fail to rectify it, and simply either choose to do nothing or choose to delay doing something while people continue to die, and as the politicians continue making political calculations?
I thank you all for your time today, and especially thank those senators and representatives who are present today and understand the dire immediacy of the situation.