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New Illinois Law Allows Early Release for a Few Eligible Offenders

by Casey J. Bastian

In August 2021, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker (D) signed House Bill 3665 into law, allowing for the early release of certain prisoners housed in the Illinois Department of Corrections (DOC) who are either medically incapacitated or terminally ill.

Under the law, the definition of “medically incapacitated” means that “any diagnosable medical condition” prevents the prisoner “from completing more than one activity of daily living without assistance”—such as feeding, bathing or dressing himself, or taking needed medication.

The definition of “terminally ill” means that an “irreversible and incurable” illness is “likely to cause death to the inmate within 18 months.” The ultimate decision to grant release will rest with the Prison Review Board (PRB), which previously was limited to making a recommendation of clemency to the governor.

The DOC reports about 70-100 deaths annually among the 28,000 prisoners it houses. But it’s unclear how many of those might qualify for release under the new law, which is also known as the Joe Coleman Medical Release Act. An 81-year-old decorated war veteran, Coleman succumbed to cancer in October 2019 in a cell at the state’s Menard Correctional Center, still awaiting a decision on clemency.

Sadly, Coleman died alone in prison despite the fact that his advanced cancer meant he no longer posed a danger to the community. The Chicago Sun Times reported that he had “children across Illinois eager to care for him in his final days.” Plus, as a veteran, his expensive end-of-life medical care could have been provided by the Veterans Administration and not DOC’s private for profit health care resources.

The new bill was supported by the Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts and the Illinois Prison Project. Said Pritzker at its signing, “This is another step toward the world, the Illinois, our families deserve. And I’m proud to turn it into law today.”

While providing PRB with new discretionary authority to consider early release for incapacitated or terminal prisoners, the bill still allows for victims of crimes to submit a victim statement during PRB’s considerations of an early release application.

A prisoner may request an eligibility determination from PRB by submitting necessary personal data, including his diagnosis. The three qualifying diagnostic criteria are that the prisoner:

• is suffering from a terminal illness; or
• has received a diagnosis that will render him medically incapacitated within six months; or
• has become incapacitated due to a post-sentencing injury.

“Medically incapacitated” is defined not only by the prisoner’s ability to perform daily living tasks but also by his underlying medical or cognitive disability, which must be one that is “unlikely to improve noticeably in the near future.”

And what if the prisoner manages to get well enough to pose a potential criminal threat again? The law anticipates that possibility. All prisoners released pursuant to HB3665 are subject to a mandatory five-year period of supervised release.

Upon submission of an application, PRB has ten days to obtain a medical evaluation of the prisoner and determine a diagnosis that provides a confirmation or denial of his condition. Within 90 days the PRB must hold a hearing if requested and render its decision granting or denying the application. PRB is required to consider:

• the diagnosis;
• the impact of continued incarceration with regards to available medical treatment;
• the danger to the community if the prisoner is released early;
• any victim statements; and
• whether the diagnosis was available at the time of original sentencing.

HB3665 applies retroactively to all prisoners currently housed by DOC. It was introduced by Chicago Democratic Rep. Will Guzzardi as a way to provide both compassionate care to DOC’s seriously ill prisoners and improve the DOC healthcare system overall.

“Every year,” he tweeted, “too many individuals who have spent a lifetime in prison die alone with no family and little dignity.”

Though Republicans said they agreed with the intent of the bill, they withheld support because of complaints that Democrats had let too many people on the PRB without approval from the state senate. Sen. Jason Plummer (R-Edwardsville) argued that the new law “expands the powers of people who are choosing, without any oversight from the Illinois state Senate as the constitution requires, to release violent criminals into all of our districts.”
Countered Sen. John Connor (D-Lockport), “If you have pancreatic cancer or something else that’s advanced to a point where you can’t function, does it really make a difference whether you’re within a prison wall or not?”Pritzker’s administration had no recriminations about enacting the law.

“This bill creates policy that honors people’s humanity while at the same time prioritizing public safety. I am proud that Illinois is leading with compassion and bringing a restorative justice lens to criminal justice policy making,” said Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton (D).

Specific information can be found in the bill at 730 ILCS 5/3-3-14 et seq. The law took effect January 1, 2022. It remains to be seen if the law does anything. As PLN has reported extensively in the past, while most states and the federal government have medical release laws on the books, sick prisoners still generally die in prison awaiting their release.

Sources: Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts, Chicago Sun Times, Illinois Deaths in Custody Project, WREX-TV, WSIL-TV, WTVO-TV

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