Records of Illinois parole board show just how rarely inmates win release

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Jeanne Kuang / Injustice Watch

The Prisoner Review Board discusses an inmate’s parole case at its April 2017 meeting in Springfield.

A version of this article is appearing in the Chicago Sun-Times, online and in the Sunday print edition.

(Updated at 2:56 p.m. July 27 to include one comment from the Illinois Prisoner Review Board)

Last January, Illinois inmate Dewayne Roby won the rarest of endorsements.

In his quest to be paroled after serving four decades in prison for the murder, rape, and robbery he committed as a 16-year-old, Roby won a vote in his favor from Illinois Prisoner Review Board member Peter Fisher.

That vote stands out: In more than three years on the board, Fisher has voted against parole 160 times, an Injustice Watch review of board minutes shows. Roby, who is now 57, was the only prisoner whose petition for parole received his support.

That makes Fisher the board member least likely to vote for parole, but certainly not the only one to routinely disfavor release. An Injustice Watch review shows that several of the board members, who are each paid at least $85,900, are highly unlikely to support release of any of the roughly 120 aging prisoners who remain locked up for crimes committed more than 40 years ago, before Illinois law was amended to largely abolish parole.

Eight of the current board members have voted to deny parole in about four of every five cases they hear.

William Norton, a former attorney and prosecutor who has been on the board since 2012, has voted in an inmate’s favor five times in 358 votes he cast — 1.4 percent of the time.

The board member who has most often favored parole, former social worker Edith Crigler, voted in favor of prisoners’ petitions in 32.5 percent of the cases she heard.

The board votes reflect resistance, from families of victims and the public at large, to granting parole to prisoners who committed serious crimes decades earlier. Citing both the costs of continued incarceration, especially of aging prisoners, and the lack of any likelihood of danger, prison reform advocates and many criminal justice experts argue for greater consideration of release.

In recent months the board has faced backlash for its April decision to release inmate Carl Reimann, who was convicted of murdering five patrons at a Yorkville restaurant in 1972. Reimann was released from prison, but then taken back into custody weeks after community members in three separate towns pushed back when the 77-year-old was moved nearby, according to WBEZ.

Reimann was one of four prisoners for whom the board approved parole at that meeting – the highest number in a single meeting in at least five years, the Injustice Watch review showed.

The review of voting records was hampered by the poor state of record-keeping by the Prisoner Review Board. Despite a state law requiring public agency minutes to be posted online and readily available, the board in November denied reporters’ request for minutes, saying that providing past minutes would be too cumbersome. Nine months later, after reporters appealed, the board still has not produced minutes from its 2012 meetings.

Further, the records provided by the board sometimes listed votes erroneously or failed to detail how members voted; Injustice Watch obtained unofficial minutes from an outside organization, as well as reporters’ own observations, to provide as complete a review as possible.

The board by law is to include 15 members, appointed by the governor to six-year terms.

Gov. Bruce Rauner this month appointed members to fill three board vacancies that dated back for months; the newly-appointed members are not included in the review of voting records.

The review of voting records shows that despite a recent spate of parole approvals, the board as a whole routinely voted to deny inmates’ requests for release from 2013 through the June 2018 monthly meeting.

Under board rules prisoners must win favorable votes from the majority of the full board, so board members who are absent or abstain have effectively voted against a prisoner. That makes the number of times board members have favored parole a more stark comparison. Fisher, a former police officer from Central Illinois, has been on the board for 191 requests for parole. Norton, the former prosecutor, has been on the board for 377 requests in the past five years.

The spokesman for the Prisoner Review Board declined to comment for this article.

Last year, Injustice Watch outlined the arbitrary and opaque operations of the board in handling parole hearings for the group of more than 120 aging inmates who still have regular opportunities to ask the board for release.

The examination found that the board was only slightly more likely to release the inmates than to let them die behind bars. The report also noted the growing difficulty in securing enough votes for release. Before 1984, inmates needed only to win the favor of the majority of a three-member panel of board members. But the board changed its policy, later adopted into law by the state legislature, to require favorable votes from the full board majority.

Fisher and Norton, the two strictest board members, did not respond to a request for comment on their voting records. Chairman Craig Findley, who voted in favor of parole requests 29.6 percent of the time, second only to Crigler, also did not respond to a request for comment.

In an interview, Crigler said she focuses on an inmate’s progress in prison rather than the original crime, and tends to deny parole requests for inmates convicted in serial killings, or those she believes would not successfully reintegrate into society after decades incarcerated.

“You can really get to see that these women and men have made monumental leaps between what they did 30 to 40 years ago and who they are now,” she said.

Crigler declined to comment on her colleagues’ voting records but acknowledged some have a tendency to discuss the original crime during parole hearings, because of the board members’ different career backgrounds.

“A lot of our board members are former police officers or prosecutors, and they look at the letter of the law,” she said. “Whether that’s right or wrong, who am I to say?”

The Prisoner Review Board initially refused the Injustice Watch review of minutes dating back to 2012, responding that the request was overly burdensome. After reporters appealed to the state attorney general, the board agreed to make minutes available online, as the law requires, but has slowly provided past years and still has not turned over 2012.

Emily Hoerner / Injustice Watch

Illinois Prisoner Review Board members at the June 2017 en banc hearing.

The minutes that were turned over are riddled with inconsistencies, errors, and missing information — including how members voted in some inmates’ hearings. In the December 2017 hearing, for example, board minutes noted the 7-7 vote denying inmate Michael Henderson parole. Not recorded: Which members voted for, and which against, the parole request.

The board neglected to upload the minutes of one entire monthly hearing, which occurred in late March 2016, to its website. Two inmates, Oscar Lee Jones and Eddie Lee Driver, were paroled during that meeting but reporters did not even learn of the meeting until examining notes taken by volunteers for the prison reform group John Howard Association.

On Friday Prisoner Review Board spokesman Jason Sweat declined to comment on the article, but said that the March 2016 meeting minutes were inadvertently not posted and that the board would upload the minutes.

Minutes of another hearing, in August 2016, were inconsistent with a different copy of that same meeting’s minutes, which Injustice Watch had obtained from the agency last year for a report on the board. One member was marked as absent in one set of the minutes, but marked as present and voting in the other set provided by the board.

To provide an accurate portrait of the board members’ votes, reporters cross-checked each of the board minutes with their own observations of meetings they attended as well as with the John Howard Association’s notes.

When Roby’s case came up last year, board records show, Fisher joined 10 of his colleagues in favoring his release. One board member was absent from that meeting, while another who was previously Roby’s attorney recused himself from the vote.

Last June, Roby became a free man for the first time since he was a teenager, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections.

But Fisher and the rest of the board’s votes in favor of parole for the inmate only slightly changed the course of Roby’s life. Without any action or vote from the board, he was set to be released after reaching his maximum sentence roughly one year later.