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Long-Term Illinois Prisoners Rarely Released by State Parole Board

by Rick Anderson

The more a certain group of Illinois prisoners age behind bars, the less likely they are to be released, according to a study released last year by the non-partisan, not-for-profit group Injustice Watch.

The study, using Prisoner Review Board records and other documents, revealed that several board members – who receive annual salaries of at least $85,900 – are highly unlikely to grant parole for the roughly 120 prisoners who remain incarcerated for crimes they committed more than four decades ago.

That was before Illinois law was amended in 1978 to essentially abolish parole. Still, parole exists even if the board is unusually stingy about granting it.

There are two types of parole, discretionary and mandatory, which differ in how release is granted. Discretionary systems leave the decision to a parole board while a mandatory system requires automatic early release under pre-established conditions.

Illinois and 15 other states, along with the District of Columbia, have discontinued parole in most cases. The debate continues over whether the discretionary or mandatory system works better, and factors differ from state to state.

According to a review by Restore Justice Illinois, there is wide variation in how the systems operate among the 33 states that offer both types of parole. States differ in how they define parole eligibility and address re-hearings following a decision by the board to deny early release. Still, the study found a number of trends, including: 

• Of the states that offer parole, 18 do not automatically exclude individuals convicted of homicide from receiving parole, while 15 do. 

• With few exceptions, states with parole allow prisoners convicted of violent, non-homicide offenses to receive parole. 

• Many states with parole restrict eligibility in cases of repeat serious offenses. 

• Many states do not limit the number of times a prisoner can go up for parole.

• Some states have established special protocols for juvenile offenders to receive parole where they otherwise would not be eligible.

Illinois’ Prisoner Review Board seems somewhat unique, based on Injustice Watch’s findings. In the last three years, one board member, Peter Fisher, a former police officer, has voted against granting parole in 160 out of 191 cases he has heard. 

Eight of the 15 board members (several seats are vacant) have voted to deny parole in about four of every five cases. William Norton, a former attorney and prosecutor, has voted in a prisoner’s favor just five times in the 358 votes he has cast since 2012. It takes votes from a majority of all the board members before parole is granted.

Injustice Watch’s review found that despite a recent increase in parole approvals, the board as a whole routinely voted to deny parole requests from 2013 through June 2018. 

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Sources: injusticewatch.org, restorejusticeillinois.org, illinois.gov, rrstar.com

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