When a group of Democratic state senators joined Republicans in rejecting two of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s nominees to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board last month, it became clear that crime has become such a big issue in this year’s elections it is even driving some divisions within the governor’s own political party.

How a little-known state board became a flashpoint for controversy also demonstrates how much has changed about politics and crime in just a few short years. When Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner took office in 2015 he pledged to work to reduce the state’s prison population by 25% over 10 years, a move at the time applauded by Chicago Democrats.

Fast forward through Rauner’s administration and most of Pritzker’s and the situation is radically different. Gun violence in Chicago has spiked along with other major U.S. cities since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic prompting Republicans to call for a more law-and-order approach while opponents point to systemic problems in the criminal justice system as a reason for it to be reformed.

And for panels such as the Prisoner Review Board, those who have served on it say, that means often nuanced decision-making about releasing men and women from prison is relegated to little more than political talking points.

“Board members spend a lot of time studying these cases, reflecting on them to discussing them, having extensive interviews with both the offender and anyone else who wants to comment on the case,” said Craig Findley, a former Republican state lawmaker who was chairman of the review board until his retirement earlier this year. “These are not casual decisions the board makes.”

The interim board members rejected by the Illinois Senate last month were Jeffrey Mears and Eleanor Kaye Wilson. A third Pritzker appointee, Oreal James, resigned just hours before the Senate was expected to vote on his appointment.

Much of the senators’ professed ire concerned board votes paroling now-elderly men and women who were convicted of high-profile killings.

Shortly after the Senate rejected Wilson’s appointment — with 17 Republicans and 14 Democrats voting against her — she told the Tribune she voted to release prisoners who had been incarcerated for decades and were no longer a threat to anyone either due to their old age or poor health.

“It is clear that these senators have a general distaste for the work of the PRB if the Prisoner Review Board does not follow their dictates and beliefs,” Wilson wrote in a letter to Pritzker obtained by the Tribune, noting some Republican senators tried to “vilify my tenure.”

“(Decisions) are made based on the inmate’s record of behavior in prison, conditions to be followed upon release, housing and job possibility,” added Wilson, who is also the godmother of former President Barack Obama’s children. “These along with the redemptive and rehabilitative nature of the inmates serve as the principle guide for parole. Given these criteria, it is impossible for any one PRB member to make a sole decision about parole.”

But Republicans said Pritzker’s appointees have voted to let some men and women out of prison far too often, and that such votes send a bad message about criminal justice. The Senate GOP produced statistics showing that since Wilson and James were appointed as interim members in April 2019, the two voted more than 40% of the time to grant parole for a specific category of older prisoners — a rate the GOP contended was too high.

“Gov. Pritzker has been completely negligent on the Prisoner Review Board from day one. And he’s putting Illinois families in danger in two ways,” Republican state Sen. Jason Plummer of Edwardsville told the Tribune the day after Mears was rejected by the Senate. “One, by putting, in some cases, very extreme people on the Prisoner Review Board and on the second case, by not following his job and making sure that the board is fully functional.”

Much of the debate has centered on older individuals who have been incarcerated in state prisons but are eligible for parole through so-called en banc hearings, which are specific hearings for aging prisoners who were given indeterminate sentences decades ago for serious crimes, such as first-degree murder.

Most were incarcerated before 1978, the year Illinois limited parole in favor of an early-release system that makes men and women in state prisons eligible to be freed for certain crimes if they served at least 50% of their sentences. Those who go through the en banc proceedings are governed by the old law, and they’re tracked by the Illinois Department of Corrections through so-called C numbers.

A Tribune review of C-numbered cases shows a steady uptick in the percentage of prisoners who have been paroled by the board, even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and prisons across the nation tried to release low-risk inmates.

In Pritzker’s first year as governor in 2019, the board, which included Rauner appointees, heard 51 cases and granted parole 15 times, a 29% rate, according to the board’s annual report that year. That’s a trend seen in minutes from en banc hearings in more recent years as well. The board that served while Rauner was governor from 2015 through 2018 heard 211 C-numbered cases and granted parole on 23 occasions, or 10.9% of the time, according to Prisoner Review Board annual reports.

Before Rauner, when Democrats Pat Quinn and Rod Blagojevich were in office, the rates were lower. From 2004 to 2008, under Blagojevich, the board heard 925 C-numbered cases and granted parole just 7.2% of the time. From 2009 through 2014 under Quinn, the board granted parole for C-numbered prisoners only 3.7% of the time out of 613 cases, the review board’s annual reports show.

Findley, the Republican former review board chairman, said he thinks the advanced age of those appearing before the board, coupled by the low recidivism rate for older people in the prison system, might explain why board members more recently have granted parole at a higher rate. Findley also said he thinks the quality of pro bono legal representation for parole candidates has improved over the years.

“Quality representation. Excellent parole plans. Those all contribute to confidence that parole is likely to be more successful,” Findley said. “And over the years as new board members take a fresh look at these old cases, they may discover things that we’ve missed.”

Today, there are fewer than 100 men and women in prison eligible for en banc hearings, records show.

Jennifer Soble, executive director of the Illinois Prison Project, said many are senior citizens who have medical needs that could be more costly to taxpayers if they’re continuously incarcerated.

“So, a person who is eligible for parole has spent 44 years in prison. That means that they’ve had 44 years of inadequate medical care, of poor diet, of poor exercise, of basically no preventive care whatsoever. Their bodies are going to be significantly older than you think they are,” said Soble, who has represented individuals at these hearings. “And we can see this in our clients. They look older. They’re often in extraordinarily poor health. They’re wheelchair bound. A bunch of them are on dialysis.”

Last year, two C-numbered men in state prison were Johnny Veal and Joseph Hurst. The decisions by the board to parole both men were cited by state senators as reasons why Wilson was rejected and why James likely would’ve been rejected in a Senate vote had he not resigned.

Veal was convicted along with another man in the high-profile 1970 slayings of Chicago police Officers Anthony Rizzato and Sgt. James Severin, and sentenced to 100 to 199 years in prison. Hurst was convicted in the 1967 killing of Chicago police Officer Herman Stallworth and sentenced to 100 to 300 years behind bars.

In February 2021, James and Wilson each voted in 8-4 decisions to grant parole for Veal and Hurst. Among the eight board members who voted to parole Veal four were originally appointed by Rauner, and three of those same members also voted to parole Hurst, records show.

James said in an interview with the Tribune that while the slayings were shocking, he learned that a few years earlier Veal was badly hurt while trying to protect a prison staffer during a confrontation and that Veal had a solid parole plan to find work, a place to live and had “a lot of family support.”

According to review board records, Veal received a GED while in prison and was nine credits short of a bachelor’s degree. He became a certified law clerk and obtained numerous certificates in technology and electronics.

“Is that 68-year-old man the same person he was at 18? No, he’s not,” James said of Veal, who turns 70 later this year. “The crime is the crime. Some people during the hearing, both for and against, wanted to retry the crime. That’s not our job. … This guy’s doing more at 70 than most 70-year-olds are as far as having an impact in the community.”

James said voting to parole Veal wasn’t an easy decision because while Veal has denied playing a role in the deaths of Severin and Rizzato a jury found him guilty of killing the two officers as they walked across a field in the Cabrini-Green public housing complex “in probably the most cowardly way you can.”

But “there is not a law in the book that says, ‘if you kill a police officer then you should never have parole,’ “ James said. “If there is, then that makes it a lot easier.”

As for Hurst, James said, it was Hurst’s poor health that played a major role in his decision to vote for parole. Hurst has admitted to killing Stallworth and while in prison received numerous disciplinary infractions during his roughly 50 years in prison, though not for violent acts.

Hurst was 77 at the time of his hearing and was being held in the medical unit of Dixon Correctional Center. Review Board records show Hurst suffered a stroke in 2008, which caused partial paralysis on his right side.

“When you look at it, he was probably much more of a liability staying in. He was probably much more of an issue for folks on the inside than he would ever be on the outside,” James said.

For Mears, some senators questioned his votes to grant parole for two prisoners, Paula Sims and Zelma King.

King, who was serving a 100-to-300-year sentence for a 1967 triple murder, had been up for parole in the past but never received any votes until being granted for parole last year at age 79. Review Board records show King received about 250 disciplinary infractions in prison, including for sexual misconduct, theft and drug-related activity.

But leading up to his 2021 parole hearing, it had been a few years since he was accused of any serious wrongdoing. Others in custody indicated in letters to the board that King had mentored them and encouraged them to take classes and not violate rules, records show. King also worked as a machinist, and had parole plans to live with his brother, a retired attorney and associate vice president at Western Illinois University in Macomb, records show.

Mears and Wilson were two of the eight members of the board who voted to parole King.

Sims, meanwhile, was convicted in 1990 of first-degree murder in the killing of her 6-week-old daughter. Evidence was introduced during trial showing Sims was also responsible for the 1986 death of her 12-day-old daughter.

In 2021, Pritzker commuted Sims’ life sentence to a parole-eligible sentence. She and her lawyer had sought to convince the review board that she suffered from postpartum psychosis at the time of the crimes, a condition that includes hallucinations, mood swings and other mental defects. At her en banc hearing last year, two psychologists testified about the ailment in support of her parole. Sims also helped push for legislation addressing postpartum psychosis and postpartum depression before it was signed into law by Rauner in 2018, recognizing the illnesses as mitigating factors in sentencing for crimes.

Her lawyer argued to the review board how “there is so much more known now” about these types of ailments than when Sims was on trial. At 62, she was released by the board in a 12-1 decision. James also voted to parole Sims, though Wilson did not attend Sims’ parole hearing.

Mears’ rejection by the Senate caught some by surprise. For one thing, in the Sims case, only one board member voted against her parole. Secondly, Republican Ken Tupy, was confirmed by the Senate at the end of the legislative session even though he too voted to grant parole for Sims.

Moments before Mears fell short of the 30 Senate votes needed to be approved for a permanent spot on the board, Republican state Sen. Terri Bryant of Murphysboro raised concerns about his parole votes for Sims and King.

“If you vote yes to confirm this individual, you are voting yes to confirm an individual who released a double murderer of her own children and a triple murderer that included a woman who was murdered,” Bryant during the Senate debate.

While Mears declined to comment to the Tribune about the Senate’s decision other than to say “my voting record speaks for itself,” James said he was not bitter about feeling the need to resign but felt the decisions the board made were more nuanced than what politicians made them out to be.

“I don’t fault any elected official for coming at it from an angle that they feel represents who they have to answer to,” James, who has worked for Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul when he was a state senator and in the restorative justice field, said earlier this month. “The difference is they have to answer to a voice that is maybe this today or that tomorrow, and what we on the board have to try to fulfill…on a continuing and consistent basis is what the law tells us to do.”

jgorner@chicagotribune.com



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