Crime is on the rise, but parole and rehabilitation of prisoners still make sense

At a time when people rightly want to take action as homicides and armed carjackings soar, let’s not lose sight of the long-term ways to make criminal justice work better: parole and rehabilitation services for prisoners.

Parole allows inmates who have served a significant percentage of their sentence to appear before a parole board and demonstrate that they have rehabilitated themselves and no longer pose a threat to society. This encourages inmates to get an education, learn skills and seek mental health care behind bars. This gives prisons a reason to provide these services.

But Illinois stopped its general parole program in 1978. Inmates who were convicted before still periodically apply to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board for parole, but there aren’t many left. them. Most inmates sentenced since then serve a pre-determined percentage of their sentence and then they are released on what is technically mandatory supervised release, even though people often call it parole.

The so-called determining sentences classify everyone in the same category. It doesn’t matter if some inmates change their lives after incarceration. They can spend the same time behind bars as prisoners with the same sentences who watch television.

In 2019, Illinois took a step toward reinstating parole by allowing newly convicted offenders under the age of 21 when their crimes were committed to generally be able to apply for parole from time to time after 10 years. The law does not apply to prisoners sentenced to natural life without parole or to those convicted of criminal predatory sexual assault or the murder of a peace officer.

It is a step in the right direction, but it excludes many prisoners.

A bill introduced Thursday by House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, would take Illinois in the wrong direction by making it harder to get parole. Among other measures, the bill would require a two-thirds vote in favor of parole instead of seven yes votes by the 12-member Prisoner Review Board. Five seats on the board would be reserved for those with law enforcement or prosecution experience.

The bill will appeal to many after such horrific stories as that of the 16-year-old girl who used a gun in three carjackings and was released on probation before shooting the head of Melissa Ortega, 8, and killing her last Saturday in Little Village.

But Illinois shouldn’t be rushing to dramatically limit parole. As it stands, the nonpartisan Prison Policy Initiative gives Illinois’ parole system an F- grade. Illinois is one of a dozen states to have abolished discretionary parole.

Not a get out of jail card

Now is the time to take another approach: broadening parole. A bill granting the possibility of parole after 20 years went nowhere last year in the legislature. A new bill allowing parole to be applied for after 25 years, for inmates 55 and older, is in the hopper for the next session.

Parole does not give prisoners a release card. Historically, it has been difficult to persuade the Prisoner Review Board to grant parole. Parole simply gives inmates the opportunity to present their case.

Parole is not a perfect system. It is emotionally draining for victims or their loved ones to testify from time to time against the granting of parole. Parole board members must be judicious when deciding who to release. A person on parole can commit another crime, but so can an inmate who has served his full sentence. There is a risk in both cases, but the possibility of parole is at least an incentive for an inmate to participate in rehabilitation while incarcerated.

“One of the goals [of prison programs] is to make sure inmates are set up to succeed,” said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Society, a prison reform group. “The goal is not to let people go out and see what happens.”

The state has failed to fulfill this task. It’s complicated to measure now because of COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantines, but prison reform advocates say that historically there have been long waiting lists for virtually every program designed to help prisoners. prisoners to improve.

Police and state and local authorities must do all they can to prevent and solve violent crimes. The culprits must be held accountable. But once in prison, inmates should have access to programs to ensure they don’t reoffend upon release.

The Illinois Constitution states that one of the purposes of prisons is “to restore to the offender a useful citizenship.”

A better parole system and more rehabilitation programs can help Illinois live up to this.

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