Problems of Prisoner Review Board go beyond voting records, attorney writes

Your excellent article of July 27 on the Prisoner Review Board was certainly fair and balanced. As a long-time observer of the board, I am glad to see its proceedings receiving attention. In fact, there are some additional points I’d add:

  • Majority of the full board. The impact of this change on the chances of parole is significant. The case of Henry Hillenbrand shows why: At the June meeting, six board members voted in favor of his parole, five opposed. It was irrelevant that most voting board members favored paroling Henry; he needed a majority of board members, including those who were absent that day.
  • Regular opportunities. Parole candidates don’t necessarily have “regular opportunities” to be considered for parole. Thanks to previous State’s Attorneys, particularly Richard Devine and Anita Alvarez, the statute has been amended to allow PRB members to set a 2-, 3-, 4-, or 5-year period between consideration of a case, if the PRB member feels he or she won’t be able to vote for this person for that future period of time. In voting for a “set,” the members fail to consider that the candidate may have changed his or her life during this period. By the way, a majority of the “full board” is NOT required in order to give an inmate a multi-year “set,” only a majority of those voting. A 6-to-5 vote would have given Henry Hillenbrand a multi-year set.
  • Original crime. Sadly, board members display more than a “tendency” to discuss the original crime. Often, that is all that some board member discuss when considering an inmate’s bid for parole. While many of the prisoners have committed murders and heinous crimes; those incidents happened more than four decades ago. And overlooked are such facts as inmates who go on to obtain a GED, a bachelor’s degree, certificates in several vocational fields, and hold important jobs in the prison – even trusted with the keys to the cellblock, etc. Although the state constitution states that the goal of imprisonment is to “restore the offender to useful citizenship,” members often seem to ignore the issue of rehabilitation during the 40+ year period of the inmate’s incarceration.
  • Prosecutorial bias. Not only are a majority of the 11 members who are discussed by Injustice Watch former prosecutors, police, and correctional officers, but the three new members just appointed by the Governor are also former correctional officers and prosecutors. That may not always create a bias. (For example, Gary Duncan, who is no longer on the board, was the former State’s Attorney of Jefferson County, and he was as fair-minded as Edith Crigler in evaluating candidates.) But one can’t help thinking that such a skewed board may account in part for the small number of prisoners who make parole. Why not appoint at least one former defense attorney?
  • Victims play a role in each C-Number inmate’s outcome, as well they should, even if it seems somewhat extreme, as when 25 to 30 Chicago police come down to observe the hearing of an inmate who was convicted of murdering a Chicago police officer. But when the victims engage in threats, that should not be allowed. Carl Reimann was invited to live with a church member who visited him for 20 years, until “victims” on social media offered to provide an alibi for anyone who would kill Reimann. Carl is now back in prison until a safe place can be found. Would it not have been more appropriate if the persons making such threats had been arrested, and Carl been allowed to remain at his friend’s home under police protection?
  • Parole statute. Probably the worst aspect of the PRB is the statute on which it is based and which has been amended by the Cook County State’s Attorneys several times. That statute allows virtually complete discretion by board members. This is quite different from the statutes of the 33 states that continue to have parole. Because of this discretion and lack of standards, it is almost impossible to win a lawsuit against Illinois’s PRB for unfairness in its votes. PRB members are free to give someone 7 votes one year, and no votes and a 5-year set the next year, even where there is no change in the inmate’s behavior. This statute is one of the reasons many legislators voted to abolish parole in 1978. They should, instead, have amended the statute.
  • No parole. The only thing worse than the way parole works in Illinois is to have no parole. Yet that is the situation facing more than 45,000 Illinois prisoners convicted since the law was changed in 1978. A bill in the legislature would change that, bringing back parole at least for those convicted of crimes committed before they reached 21 years old. If that were to happen, the Prisoner Review Board would have expanded powers.
  • Peter Fisher’s “record.” A number of PRB “watchers” believe that Mr. Fisher’s vote for Dewayne Roby was a mistake on his part. In voting with the majority of members who had said “yes,” he thought they were voting on a motion to deny parole to Dewayne, when in fact they were voting on a motion to grant him parole. Dewayne still had enough votes to make parole even without Fisher’s vote. But Fisher may not have intended to spoil his perfect record.

(Aviva Futorian is active in the prison reform organizations Project 1-11 and the John Howard Association.)