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Why Illinois’s House Bill 531 or Any Parole Bill or Sentencing Reform Should Be Retroactive

Excluding current prisoners is the height of hypocrisy.

(Image: BrilliantEye / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

Around the country, advocates are pushing for legislation to improve parole policies, making it more possible for people serving long sentences to be released from prison. However, not all of these bills are equally helpful. Illinois is a case in point. A parole reform bill is passing through the legislature, House Bill 531, but it is not “retroactive” — meaning it will not apply to any of the tens of thousands of Illinoisans currently serving long sentences in Illinois prisons.

Illinois is one of only two states without an active parole system.

The bill, which will shortly be put to a vote in the Illinois General Assembly, would create a parole board for juveniles charged as adults and certain young adults who commit serious crimes. House Bill 531 would be circumscribed to apply to people under the age of 21 when the offense occurs. Depending on the charge, the person would have served a minimum of either 10 or 20 years before becoming eligible for consideration for parole. Additionally, people sentenced to “natural life” (i.e., life without parole) would likewise be ineligible. Currently, Illinois is one of only two states without an active parole system.

Retroactivity is a main point of contention for any bill concerning sentencing reform or parole, particularly in Illinois, where vociferous opposition to retroactivity has emerged from many state’s attorney’s offices. Opponents of retroactivity often make a few arbitrary and false statements to argue that no parole bill should be retroactive.

First, opponents claim that if judges knew that certain people they’d sentenced might be paroled, they may have sentenced them differently. This is a complete red herring. Even if HB 531 were implemented retroactively, the maximum sentence handed down by judges would still be the same. (So, if a person is not deemed by the parole board to be “rehabilitated,” they’d still be serving the same sentence required by the judge, in its entirety.) Plus, even if the judge had known of the possibility of future parole eligibility, and had sentenced them to an even longer sentence, under HB 531, that person would still become eligible for consideration or parole at the exact same time — after either 10 or 20 years, depending on the crime.

Opponents also claim that making parole reform retroactive could violate some constitutional provisions regarding victims’ rights. Many of the most vocal people making this claim are prosecutors who should know better. There is no constitutional provision that says the state cannot reconsider sentences once handed down. If that were the case, the entire clemency process that the Prisoner Review Board oversees would violate those same mythical constitutional rights, as would a defendant’s statutory right to file a motion to reconsider their sentence, or the right of every juvenile and young adult to file a petition for their release. Illinois’s House Bill 531 would be just as constitutional if it were retroactive as it is in its non-retroactive form, because like the clemency process, it does give victims the ability to be heard, which is all that the constitution requires.

Studies of crime victims show that more of them support increased rehabilitation than support increased incarceration.

Additionally, opponents of retroactive parole reform claim that retroactivity would violate “promises made to the victim.” Leaving aside the fact that this would be in no way legally binding if it were true, we should also ask: When were these alleged promises made to the victims, and by whom? To which victims? With what authority? They don’t say, as there were no promises made other than self-serving tough-on-crime political rhetoric, a judge’s sentencing order and Illinois’s overly punitive sentencing laws, which we all know are subject to change.

I also seriously question any state’s attorney proclaiming to speak on behalf of victims or making claims about a victim’s rights. States attorneys have a long and sordid history of exploiting victims for their own political gain, and they constantly portray all victims as having only one concern: revenge. State’s attorneys rarely ask victims what they need to heal, or what they believe a sufficient sentence would be. In fact, victims that don’t vociferously support the harshest penalty possible are often ignored completely by state’s attorneys, or are viewed as the enemy. Nor will state’s attorneys ever admit that many people in prison are themselves victims of crime (something most victims’ rights groups won’t recognize either) — not to mention the fact that many people in prison are victims of excessive sentences.

Studies of crime victims show that more of them support increased rehabilitation than support increased incarceration. For instance, a report put out by the Urban Institute in July 2017 noted:

Most important, our current system doesn’t ask victims what would serve them best. It fails to seek their input in a meaningful way, instead presuming that harsher punishments will mean more complete healing. But when asked, many people who have experienced the most serious crimes express a desire for restorative measures that might help them heal and prevent the violence they suffered from happening again. A 2016 survey showed that 61% of crime survivors are in favor of shorter prison sentences and increased investment in crime prevention and rehabilitation.

Likewise, in a 2010 study published in the Journal of Criminal Justice, Alex R. Piquero and Laurence Steinberg found that the public in general (and especially in Illinois) is willing to pay more for increased rehabilitation of juveniles than they are willing to pay for increased incarceration.

People serving long sentences are being denied the chance to prove to a parole board that they are not the evil, irredeemable monsters they were portrayed to be.

It is the height of hypocrisy to try to install a young adult “offender” parole board, or any parole board, and not make it retroactive. The only reason the Illinois legislature is even considering a young adult “offender” parole board is because an enormous amount of social science and neuroscience research has shown that the areas of the brain responsible for controlling executive functions — like weighing risk versus reward, long-term planning, etc. — don’t finish developing until people reach their mid-20s. This is leading policymakers and judges to recognize that people don’t truly become adults until their mid-20s. This also has led people to realize the inhumanity, irrationality and unconstitutionality of excessive sentences. It makes us realize that we have been falsely demonizing and falsely labeling our youth as permanently incorrigible when they are not.

Why are legislators obstinately refusing to make their corrective measures retroactive? By doing so, they are denying potential relief to thousands of victims of excessive sentences, seemingly only to satisfy prosecutors’ and some crime victims’ desires for revenge. People serving long sentences are being denied the chance to prove to a parole board that they are not the evil, irredeemable monsters they were portrayed to be decades ago.

This is especially galling when one considers the arguments that my classmates Al Ameen and Raul Dorado here at Stateville Correctional Center expounded upon a few weeks ago. They asked, “How can they exclude us? We’re the ones with the sweat equity put into this fight.”

This is true. As it is written, HB 531 applies to hypothetical people serving sentences in the future. However, it isn’t these hypothetical people who have spent decades fighting for their freedom, fighting to change the minds of society and fighting to rehabilitate themselves for no apparent reason other than to die in prison a little bit smarter.

No, it was the thousands of men and women who are currently incarcerated, as well as our friends and families, activists (who want to see justice done in the form of our relief when deserved), and even the many crime victims and their families who have rightly lost faith in our current criminal legal system. We put in the work to make parole reform happen. Our reward is a steady kick in the teeth, as we are told that retroactivity is a nonstarter.

This reality deserves consideration when decisions are made as to whether to support retroactivity of any bill that reduces sentences or brings back any type of parole.

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