Your NPR news source
Pritzker Safe-T Act Bail

Flanked by lawmakers and supporters, Gov. JB Pritzker picks up the nearly 800-page criminal justice reform bill, known as the SAFE-T Act, after signing it into law during a ceremony at Chicago State University on the South Side on Feb. 22, 2021. Some advocates are pushing the governor and legislature to make more sweeping changes to parole and clemency in Illinois.

Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

What’s the future of parole and clemency in Illinois?

Bringing back discretionary parole and expanding clemency in Illinois are just a few of the criminal justice proposals being considered now by Illinois lawmakers. But there’s a big difference between talking about sentencing reform and enacting it, and supporters are urging patience.

It’ll be their last chance this year to pass bills and send them to Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker for his signature to become law. As part of this year’s Prisoncast! project, dozens of people incarcerated in Illinois wrote to WBEZ asking for updates and information about current proposals to expand the ways people get released from prison — especially parole and clemency.

Here’s a brief rundown of proposals currently before lawmakers and an update on their chances of becoming law any time soon. This does not include all the criminal justice or prison reform bills being considered in Illinois. Some advocacy groups such as Restore Justice Illinois and FAMM provide regular legislative updates on a larger number of bills. For more on organizations that serve families affected by the prison system, check out the Prisoncast! family resource guide or email prisoncast@wbez.org.

The push to bring back parole

Illinois effectively got rid of discretionary parole in 1978 during a wave of tough-on-crime policy-making. That ended the period where a parole board could decide that someone should be let out of prison early, and ushered in an era where the length of someone’s time in prison was decided almost exclusively by the judges and juries who sentenced them.

There are currently two bills before state lawmakers — HB3373 and SB2129 — that would bring back discretionary parole for people who have served long sentences.

These “Earned Reentry” bills would phase in parole eligibility for people who have served at least 20 consecutive years of their sentence. Eligibility does not mean people are automatically released. Rather, it means they would be allowed to be considered for release at a hearing before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board.

“In reality, this bill could release no one,” said Illinois State Rep. Carole Ammons, an Urbana Democrat. “It’s not up to me. It’s not up to the person who’s incarcerated. It’s up to the PRB to determine whether the qualifications are met.”

A lack of resources puts up one obstacle to reinstating discretionary parole in Illinois, say Ammons and other lawmakers and lobbyists interviewed by WBEZ. An influx of new parole applications from people in prison could stress the Prisoner Review Board’s ability to process them all, Ammons said. She said she’s working on getting more resources to the board.

Another obstacle is politics, says the bill’s sponsor in the Illinois Senate, Celina Villanueva, a Chicago Democrat. She acknowledges that some colleagues — both Democrats and Republicans — are hesitant to take votes that could make them look soft on crime. But she also says some are concerned about how crime victims would react to more people in prison being paroled.

The House bill has faced opposition from some law enforcement groups, such as the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police and the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association.

In a statement requested by WBEZ, Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker’s office did not take a clear stand on current efforts to reinstate discretionary parole in Illinois. Rather, it touted the governor’s record on criminal justice reform, such as his grants of expungements and pardons relating to cannabis, and a new law that eliminates cash bail statewide.

For now, Ammons said she does not expect her bill to reinstate discretionary parole to be approved by lawmakers this fall.

“Unfortunately, the way [policies] change when it comes to the criminal legal system is extraordinarily slow,” Ammons said. “Things do take a long time but we have to stay in the fight.”

Making recent parole changes retroactive

While Illinois does not have a full-on discretionary parole system for people in prison, state politicians in 2019 did reinstate parole for many people serving long sentences who were under 21 at the time they committed their crimes.

The so-called Youthful Parole Law allows for parole consideration after people in that group served 10 years or more on their sentences. People convicted of aggravated criminal sexual assault or murder have to serve at least 20 years before being able to petition the Prisoner Review Board. And those convicted of predatory criminal sexual assault of a child or people serving natural life sentences for murder are not eligible.

The law was the first big change to Illinois’ parole system since lawmakers essentially abolished discretionary parole in 1978. But it only applied to young people who were sentenced after June 1, 2019. So young people who were sentenced during the intervening four decades are not eligible because the law is not retroactive.

Some advocates and state lawmakers want to change that. One bill in the Illinois Senate — SB2073 — would make the law retroactive so that it applies to people who were sentenced since 1978 and were under the age of 21 at the time of their sentencing.

But that, too, faces an uphill effort in the General Assembly, said State Sen. Seth Lewis, the Republican from Carol Stream who is sponsoring the bill. Lewis said he does not expect the bill to pass in the veto session that starts in late October.

“It’s a bill that has such a profound and impactful change on many different areas -– not only the person whose incarcerated, but at the same time the victim’s families, law enforcement, state’s attorneys, the judicial system — I think it’d be unfair to jam it through in veto session without it being fully vetted,” Lewis told WBEZ.

Truth-in-sentencing and the Campaign for Collective Clemency

So-called “truth-in-sentencing” laws are a big reason many people in prisons nationwide are serving long sentences. Illinois’ law, passed in 1998, instituted mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes, meaning people convicted of certain crimes would have to serve at least 85% of their sentences before being eligible for release. Before that law, people in prison often got released after serving half their sentences.

Opponents to truth-in-sentencing laws say they take away judges’ discretion in determining how long someone should go to prison, and force them to impose long sentences. One bill before Illinois lawmakers, HB3807, would allow judges to give sentences below the mandatory minimum to people who were under age 21 at the time they committed their crimes. Another duo of bills, SB2259 and HB3901, would shorten existing mandatory minimum sentences in Illinois.

The sponsors of those measures, though, told WBEZ they do not expect the bills to pass this fall.

Meanwhile, advocates inside and outside of Illinois prison are urging Gov. JB Pritzker to use his executive clemency power to essentially get rid of truth-in-sentencing mandatory sentences, regardless of whether state lawmakers change state law. The governor has the power to reduce sentences through pardoning and granting clemency, and he can expunge criminal records.

The Campaign for Corrective Clemency is a petition urging the governor to grant parole eligibility to anyone serving a sentence of life without parole, after they’ve served 15 or 20 years of their sentence. It also urges the governor to essentially do away with mandatory minimum sentences by pardoning the portions of people’s sentences that wouldn’t exist but for the 1998 law.

When asked by WBEZ whether Pritzker supports the Campaign for Collective Clemency, Pritzker’s office did not give a direct answer. Pritzker spokesperson Alex Gough wrote, “There is still work to be done, but Governor Pritzker remains committed to advancing equity, empathy, public safety, and justice across the state of Illinois.”

Alex Keefe is WBEZ’s Engagement Editor. Email the Prisoncast! team directly at prisoncast@wbez.org.

The Latest