Aging prisoners left to arbitrary process to win release

A state board uses an arbitrary and opaque process to decide whether prisoners convicted of committing violent crimes decades ago should be released, an Injustice Watch review has found. The process is wracked by subjectivity, and that problem is not confined to Illinois.

This is the first part in The Long Wait, a three-part series exploring the Illinois Prisoner Review Board‘s process for deciding on parole for a group of inmates who remain in prison for serious crimes committed before 1978.

The fate of one hundred twenty-one men and one woman who have been locked up in Illinois for decades rests in the hands of a 14-member state board that is only slightly more likely to release them than it is to let them die behind bars.

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Seventy-six of the group are now senior citizens, and three of them are in their 80s. Some are in wheelchairs or otherwise disabled.

All committed their crimes – most of them murders, and several of them heinous – in a time years before the first American woman went into space, the U.S. boycotted the Summer Olympics in Moscow, and Ronald Reagan was elected president.

Most were sentenced to a range of years in prison, some even to life, all with the periodic chance to seek release through a system designed to reward rehabilitation. In 1978, Illinois abolished that system in favor of set sentences, in hopes of keeping criminals in prison longer.

As some of the state’s oldest inmates, they are some of the least likely to commit new crimes if released, according to studies conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. As time has gone on, these prisoners have again and again unsuccessfully sought parole.

Injustice Watch spent the last five months studying the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, the state agency tasked with affording these 122 prisoners the opportunity for release. The review revealed an opaque system plagued by inconsistencies and arbitrariness, susceptible to outside influences.

The findings mirror nationwide research by criminology experts, who said that most state parole boards operate without meaningful oversight of procedures and decisions, and without clear criteria set by state law for what constitutes a good candidate for release.

Scholars who study parole nationwide also said that input unrelated to an inmate’s rehabilitation and risk of re-offending should not be considered at parole. They cite factors such as the nature of the original crime and statements by victims and neighbors that merely express their opinions on a prisoner’s release.

In Illinois, the board operates with virtually no outside oversight. The board’s decisions are not reviewable in court. And much of its decision-making is by law withheld from public scrutiny, leaving the process largely unclear to parole applicants, their families and the public.

How the process works: One member of the board meets with the inmate in custody, then reports to the full board during monthly roundtable meetings in Springfield where members decide whether to grant or deny parole. The inmate is not present for the vote. Board members, appointed by the governor to six-year terms, include former policemen, prosecutors, social workers, parole officers and politicians; members earn $85,000 a year, and the chairman earns $95,000.

Prisoners who nearly won parole one year may get few votes in support the next, even if their circumstances are unchanged.

Prisoners who fail to show remorse and regret are unlikely to be granted parole, even if they have maintained for decades that they did not commit the crime.

No matter how rehabilitated prisoners might be, parole is routinely denied based on factors outside the inmates’ control. Board members appear loathe to consider a prisoner’s reasons for release in cases where a victim’s family has issued a plea to keep the inmate behind bars. Those pleas, furthermore, are shielded from review by the public, by the prisoners or by their attorneys.

In some cases, board members have raised concerns about how the public may perceive a decision to grant parole. For particularly heinous offenses, some current board members have stated publicly they would never consider release, regardless if the prisoner was told at the time of sentencing that parole was possible.

The board’s chairman Craig Findley and legal counsel Jason Sweat defended the board’s decision-making process during a recent two-hour interview at their Springfield headquarters. Both contended the system was not arbitrary, noting many factors go into each decision, including an inmate’s disciplinary history in prison and the attitude he or she shows in a board interview.

“I don’t see any inconsistency in what we do,” Findley said, later adding, “Everything is dynamic in this parole process.”

Jeanne Kuang / Injustice Watch

Prisoner Review Board chairman Craig Findley, pictured in his office in August.

Both officials said it was not a fair measure to compare the votes an inmate won one year versus the next. Sweat further discouraged comparing decisions on different inmates convicted of similar crimes without knowing everything in the inmate’s “master file.” But such a review is impossible, since state law prohibits some information in the file, including inmates’ disciplinary histories and victim statements, from being released to the public, inmates and their attorneys, and prosecutors.

Nor is it possible for the public to review the decisions in any single inmate’s hearings over the years, except by scouring through the minutes of all past board meetings. The minutes are often not comprehensive and offer few details about board discussions and reasoning for parole decisions. The board also does not keep current statistics on its parole decisions.

Sweat said the board’s staff is in the process of digitizing records.

Victims’ advocates and prosecutors said that though parole hearings are difficult on victims, they did not view the process as arbitrary, echoing the board’s explanations of the decision-making process. Winnebago County State’s Attorney Joe Bruscato, who for years attended hearings to oppose the release of prisoners from his region, said he thought the decisions made sense.

Only one inmate from Winnebago County has won parole out of the roughly 12 cases considered by the board over the past nine years, he said. One other prisoner was released after serving his maximum term. Only one remains in prison; the others have since died in custody, Bruscato said.

Injustice Watch reported this story by conducting interviews with current and former board members, attorneys, criminologists and inmates; obtaining Illinois Department of Corrections records; reading through years of meeting minutes and case transcripts; and attending hearings to observe the board.

Injustice Watch reporters were denied access to attend the prison hearing a board member conducts in advance of board consideration.

Findley said the board operates like a jury, and said the other appointees’ different career backgrounds explains voting differences as the board makeup changes. He also noted that the surviving inmates who have not yet been paroled have committed the state’s most serious crimes, presenting the board with especially difficult release decisions.

Former board members said they sometimes found it difficult to consider all the wide-ranging factors in an inmate’s request for parole, such as his or her education in prison, disciplinary incidents, and plans for housing and employment if released. “In terms of looking at the original crime, to get by it to see other factors, I really struggled to try to do that,” former board member Gary Duncan said of his consideration in particularly serious cases. Duncan retired in March.

Findley said during an April hearing that sometimes nothing else really matters: “In some cases nothing they do could overcome the crime.”

Parole board member’s inability to move past the original nature of the crime to instead consider an inmate’s progress is one of the biggest flaws in the parole system nationwide, said Marc M. Howard, a Georgetown University professor and director of the school’s Prisons and Justice Initiative. Without changing that, he said, the parole process is a “charade.”

The board operates without the formality of other legal proceedings. State law outlines a variety of information that the board must consider, but there is no set criteria that inmates can meet to guarantee votes for release. Board members who abstain from voting due to conflicts of interest in an inmate’s case are nevertheless allowed to remain in the room and contribute to discussion. Prisoners and their lawyers are not permitted to see what victims and their families tell the board.

The inmates still serving indeterminate sentences are known as “C-numbers” for the identification code most were assigned when they entered prison in the 1970s. Nineteen of them were 18 years old or younger at the time of their crimes. The average C-number inmate today is 67 years old.

The prisoners’ parole appeals have become dire. Forty-six of the inmates who were sentenced to indeterminate sentences died in custody in the last 10 years. Because their records are incomplete, board officials cannot say precisely how many inmates were paroled in that period. An Injustice Watch review determined the number is at least 49 inmates, and possibly as many as 55.

Keeping those elderly prisoners confined, research shows, is extremely costly. Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director at the John Howard Association of Illinois, a prison watchdog group, said an average prison inmate costs Illinois around $30,000 per year, including basic care and staffing costs. Between health care needs and making accommodations for disabilities, the average older prisoner can cost more than twice as much, she said.

Vollen-Katz called it important to compare the cost of keeping elderly inmates in prison with the risk of those inmates re-offending if released. “Where does that money get you, how much safer do you feel because of it?” she asked.

Prosecutors across the state regularly oppose parole before the board, arguing that releasing convicted murderers early depreciates the seriousness of their offenses. Matt Jones, associate director of the Illinois State’s Attorney Appellate Prosecutor’s office, said such offenders should serve the maximum sentences they were given.

The lucky ticket

In an April board meeting in Springfield, the shifting standards for parole decisions were on full display.

Three Chicago men were convicted of committing the same 1975 murders. Wayne Lindsay, Michael Baptist and Lennox Lawrence were convicted of taking part in killing two state’s witnesses, and attempted to kill a third, to stop them from testifying against Baptist’s brother, who was awaiting trial for murder. All three were sentenced to 150 to 300 years in prison.

Baptist, who was not identified as one of the shooters, was paroled in 2014, board records show.

In April, the board heard the separate parole requests of Lindsay and Lawrence.

Board member Tom Johnson had conducted the institutional hearing for Lawrence and made the presentation to the board. Lawrence still denies that he had taken part in the murder, which proved an insurmountable obstacle. The board voted 13-0 to deny him parole.

Chairman Findley, a former state representative, said after the vote that he could not consider Lawrence for parole until he began to take some responsibility for his role. The board then voted 13-0 to deny him another hearing for two more years.

“These people are slowly walking me to my grave,” Lawrence, now 61, said in a phone interview from Dixon Correctional Center.

PRB en banc April

Jeanne Kuang / Injustice Watch

Prisoner Review Board members at a full board meeting this April.

In the co-defendant’s case, board member Peter A. Fisher, who conducted the prison interview, told colleagues that the event was tearful and that Lindsay, now 60, displayed deep remorse.

The board nevertheless voted 12-1 to deny Lindsay parole after board member Salvador Diaz, a former Chicago police officer, warned his colleagues to “be very careful with the message we send to the community” regarding what happens to those who murder state’s witnesses. The board also voted to deny Lindsay another hearing for two more years. It was Lindsay’s 28th time asking for parole.

Other prisoners convicted of murdering crime witnesses in recent years have, in contrast, won parole.

The board paroled Otis Williams in 2013 and A.D. Clark in 2015. The two had been sentenced to 800 to 2,400 years in prison after they were convicted of murdering a witness to a burglary they committed, along with his friend, in 1974. The victims had been beaten with hatchets and set on fire in a Kankakee County trailer home.

Williams asked for parole 29 times before it was granted; board members that day noted his “sincere remorse” and tearful interview, board minutes show.

Georgetown University professor Howard warned that without some standards to measure rehabilitation, the process can appear random. “It kind of indirectly sends a message that it’s a lottery, that it’s just sort of getting the lucky ticket,” Howard said. “Someone with a similar record got out and someone didn’t. I think it’s really important that it be more uniform, more fair.”

A bid for objectivity

In 2015, an inmate named Harrison Chancy filed a federal lawsuit challenging the arbitrariness of the board’s decisions. Chancy, now 58, was convicted of a May 28, 1977, robbery-turned-murder in Lemont, Illinois. He brought the lawsuit after consecutive parole hearings led to sharply different outcomes, though his circumstances were virtually unchanged.

Between 1991 and 2010, the board had voted unanimously at each of Chancy’s parole hearings to deny him release, and starting in 2001, the board had also voted to delay his next hearing for three years each time. During his 2013 hearing, Chancy was denied parole again, but had gained six votes in his favor from the 13-member board. The board’s chairman at the time, Adam Monreal, said it was a “close case,” the lawsuit states.

For the first time in more than a decade, the board did not vote to delay Chancy’s next hearing for more than a year. But the next year, the board had expanded to 15 members, 14 of whom were present. Two board members who had supported his parole the previous year switched their votes, so Chancy was denied parole by a 10-4 vote. The board then voted, again 10-4, to deny him another hearing for three years.

Chancy’s attorneys contended his parole plan and letters of support had remained identical from 2013 to 2014, and that neither the State’s Attorney’s office, the Department of Corrections, nor the board could point to a single incident in the past year that reflected negatively on the inmate.

In the lawsuit, Chancy pointed to a 2009 state law, requiring the Prisoner Review Board to use a risk assessment tool to help objectively determine the danger to society posed if a prisoner was released. But, as Chancy argued in the lawsuit, the members had yet to adopt one.

Chancy’s attorneys dropped the lawsuit after the board began using a risk assessment tool.

Despite its mandated use, not all board members are convinced the tool has value. At the April 2017 board meeting, member Diaz said he did not believe the tool’s rating of inmate Frank Deluca, convicted along with his young lover Patricia Columbo of the gruesome murders of Columbo’s family, as having a low risk of re-offending. He explained the tool did not take into account personality traits Diaz said he gleaned from interviewing Deluca.

“For me, [the tool] is useless,” Diaz said.

Findley said the board is still learning to use the risk assessment tool, but said it is just one factor to weigh in decisions. He acknowledged that the recidivism rate for elderly inmates is extremely low as a whole. “But that’s looking at the universe, and we’re looking at individuals,” he said. “And predicting behavior is extraordinarily difficult.”

C numbers

Illinois Department of Corrections

Some of the 122 inmates with indeterminate sentences still in custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections.

University of Minnesota criminologist Kevin Reitz said that nationwide, parole board members are more likely to ignore risk assessment recommendations for release than those recommending continued incarceration, especially because of the political risk to release prisoners who may then commit violent crimes.

And though boards may be required to use the tool, it remains up to board members how much weight to give to the tool. “The process is so stacked against the prisoner, and the process is so invisible and uncontestable and unreviewable,” Reitz said.

From gangs to God

When Ronnie Carrasquillo thinks back to the moment that put him behind bars, he is met with a mixture of agony and vexation. “What the hell was wrong with you,” he asked himself rhetorically, “to even point [the gun] in that direction?”

It was an October night in 1976. Carrasquillo was 18. He left a house party with a friend’s gun in hand.

Around 2 a.m., a fight had broken out between two rival gangs at an intersection on Chicago’s Northwest Side. Carrasquillo fired the gun several times toward the crowd. One of the bullets fatally struck a plainclothes police officer, Terrence Loftus, who had stopped on his way home from work to disperse the melee. Carrasquillo maintains he did not intend to hit Loftus, though prosecutors argued otherwise.

Photos of West Fullerton Ave. at Central Park Ave. in the early morning of Oct. 10, 1976, included as exhibits during Carrasquillo’s trial, show Officer Terrence Loftus’s car after he was shot.

Cook County Judge Frank Wilson found Carrasquillo guilty of murder after a nonjury trial in 1977, and sentenced him to 200 to 600 years in prison for Loftus’s death. Speaking to reporters this year during a prison visit as well as in a series of telephone interviews, Carrasquillo said that he had taken some comfort from the word of other jail detainees who told him at the time that most convicted murderers served only 10 years before being paroled, no matter the sentence.

Carrasquillo said during the interviews that it took him years to leave his gang, the Imperial Gangsters. But in the early 1980s, he said, he started to take a step back from the gang, and began making a sizeable shift from the angry and illiterate young man who spent most of his teenage years largely unsupervised after the death of his mother. He has been asking for parole since 1984.

Carrasquillo said he officially renounced his gang membership in 1993; in 2013, he submitted an affidavit to Attorney General Lisa Madigan reaffirming that renunciation. In the past few decades in prison, Carrasquillo has written an 80-page study guide about the life of the biblical figure Abraham, earned a bachelor’s degree in theology and helped steer younger inmates to a better path.

Chicago Sun-Times; Illinois Department of Corrections

Left: a mugshot of Ronnie Carrasquillo showing his face swollen after he said he was beaten by the police, which ran in the Oct. 12, 1976 issue of the Chicago Sun-Times. Right: an undated photo of Carrasquillo in prison.

Over the years, Carrasquillo has amassed a wealth of support in his quest for freedom. Several local politicians, including then-County Commissioner Roberto Maldonado and U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Chicago, signed letters of support. He has had support from religious leaders, a prison teacher and other past inmates who said Carrasquillo mentored them while incarcerated. Even Thomas Breen, one of the prosecutors who brought the case against Carrasquillo, wrote a letter to the parole board in 2000 asking them to consider his release.

The board also has considered other factors about Carrasquillo’s case, including the corruption of the trial judge, who committed suicide as he was under investigation for taking a bribe in one other case.

Police, prosecutors strongly oppose release

Carrasquillo’s release has been vigorously opposed by prosecutors, the Chicago Police Department and the union representing the officers.

The Cook County State’s Attorney’s office insists Carrasquillo killed the officer on purpose, and contend his gang renunciation was a fake effort to win parole. Assistant State’s Attorney Gina Savini cited to the board in 2016 Carrasquillo’s listing in a book of gang members compiled by the Chicago Crime Commission and the Chicago Police Department, as well as a statement from a purported nephew of Carrasquillo that he remained “the overall leader of the Imperial Gangsters.”

The accuracy of the gang book has been challenged; some men remain listed as active gang members years after they died. Carrasquillo and his family, furthermore, said they do not know the purported nephew and that they are not relatives.

Contacted by Injustice Watch, the man said he has never heard of Ronnie Carrasquillo and never made the alleged statements. (Injustice Watch is withholding the man’s name, at the request of his stepfather, who said the family fears repercussions if his son is falsely identified as an informant.)

“I can’t grow out of being 18 years old,” Carrasquillo said of his time before the parole board. “A gangster, thug, and I’m stuck in that.”

The State’s Attorney’s office declined to comment, and the Chicago Police Department said the police sergeant cited as the source of the information would not be available for comment.

When Carrasquillo’s case has been heard by the full parole board, a charter bus filled with off-duty Chicago police officers has made its way to Springfield for the 9 a.m. hearing. The officers file in, introduce themselves by name, and then sit and watch as the board reviews the case — a common practice for the hearings of inmates who have killed Chicago officers.

The Chicago chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police union in 2005 even wrote to backers of Carrasquillo’s petition, including Maldonado and Gutierrez, threatening to withdraw its political support if they did not publicly denounce Carrasquillo’s parole request.

When asked about the union chapter’s efforts to organize opposition, chapter spokesman Martin Preib declined to discuss the case on the record and hung up.

Board minutes show that members said during Carrasquillo’s 2009 parole hearing that parole is rarely granted for police murderers, and the candidate must be exceptional to win release. By reviewing past board records, Injustice Watch was able to identify 10 inmates convicted of killing or attempting to kill police or other law enforcement officers who were paroled since 1992.

Votes slipping away

Between 2005 and 2008, Carrasquillo had hearings each year and was within one vote of obtaining parole. In 2008, Carrasquillo even won a majority of voting members: six in favor of parole, five opposed, and two absent. But state law requires the approval of a majority of the board, which at the time included 13 members.

In meetings, board minutes show, members talked about Carrasquillo’s “tremendous” family support. They also spoke of the “transformation” that Carrasquillo had made, and of the “great deal of remorse” he showed for taking a life.

But each time, Carrasquillo was denied parole on the grounds that his release would “deprecate the seriousness of the offense.”

The justification is one of three reasons that state law permits parole to be denied, and the one used most commonly. Reitz, the criminologist, said the seriousness of the offense should not be a factor in parole decisions, as judges have already imposed sentences based on that.

“If you’ve got a parole board that can’t get past the seriousness of the offense, then it’s such a tilted process,” Reitz said.

In the past nine years, members’ support for Carrasquillo’s release has waned. He even lost the longtime vote of the board’s current chairman, Findley, who had previously asked members to parole Carrasquillo.

Findley said in 2013 that after paying a daytime visit to the intersection where the crime was committed, he no longer believed Loftus’s killing was unintentional. Carrasquillo’s petition for parole received only three favorable votes that year. After denying parole, the board members agreed to make Carrasquillo wait three years before bringing his next petition for them to consider.

Jeanne Kuang / Injustice Watch

A daytime view of West Fullerton Ave. at Central Park Ave. earlier this year, on Chicago’s Northwest Side.

He was finally eligible to reapply in December 2016; his petition again received only three votes in support. Once again, the board also voted to require Carrasquillo to delay his next parole hearing for three years. The next month, at the request of Carrasquillo’s attorney, the board agreed to reconsider that delay.

Board member Diaz, who had voted for the delay a month earlier, was absent, and his colleagues were reluctant to take another vote without him, board minutes show.

Board members tried getting Diaz on the phone to participate in the vote. When he could not be reached, they temporarily went on to other cases. With Diaz still unavailable, board members then decided to take up the issue without him to accommodate the schedule of the Cook County prosecutor who was present, the minutes show.

With Diaz absent, a vote to uphold the three-year delay tied 6-6 and did not pass, allowing Carrasquillo to next request parole later this year. But when Diaz then telephoned into the meeting, the board took yet another vote and agreed to reinstate the delay, board minutes show. That means Carrasquillo must wait until 2019 to be considered again for parole.

Chairman Findley said the move to revisit a vote is extremely rare. He defended the board’s informality for promoting debate.

Old system, changing rules

In 1977, the Illinois legislature revised the longstanding sentencing law that permitted judges to sentence inmates to a range of years. The state replaced the old system with set sentences, which has now all but ended the traditional parole system in the state. Sen. George E. Sangmeister, D-Aurora, said on the floor as the bill was being considered, “It is time that we respond to our constituents who want a tougher anti-crime bill and the contents of this bill, believe me, will do it.”

An early draft of the bill would have required that each prisoner already serving an indefinite term be re-sentenced under the proposed system. But that provision outraged legislators, such as former chairman of the Illinois Parole and Pardon Board, Sen. Jack E. Bowers, R-Downers Grove, who warned during floor debate that the proposal was “full of time bombs,” like the impending release of notorious murderers.

Before passing, the bill was amended: Anyone convicted of a crime that occurred before Feb. 1, 1978 and sentenced to at least 20 years in prison would still be subject to the old law. The prisoner would need to win the support of the revamped Prisoner Review Board, formed initially with 10 members who earned $30,000 a year, to be released.

Carrasquillo was convicted Dec. 19, 1977, just a week before the new system was signed into law. Because of the timing of his case, he was given the choice to be sentenced under the old law or the new. At his trial attorney’s advice, fearing that his conviction of murdering a police officer would lead to a fixed life sentence under the new law, he said he chose to be sentenced to a range of years with the opportunity for parole.

As Carrasquillo has remained locked up, the board has periodically revised its procedures to respond to controversies that erupt any time a paroled inmate is accused of a new crime.

Initially prisoners could obtain parole by winning a majority of a three-member board panel. In 1984 the board chairman decided inmates needed to win a majority of the full board, a change later enacted into state law.

Over the years, the number of board members has increased by statute; currently, there are 14 members and one vacancy, meaning inmates need eight favorable votes to be paroled. The jobs are full-time; in addition to hearing the C-number cases, board members conduct parole revocation hearings and make clemency recommendations to the Governor.

In 1995, the law was amended to permit the board to deny inmates annual hearings; since 2012, the board has been granted authority to delay a hearing for up to five years.

“All I can do is present myself, who I am, what I’m doing,” Carrasquillo said. “All the time I go to the board [and say], ‘I’m not 18 no more.’”

Read Part 2.