Last January, Illinois inmate Dewayne Roby won the rarest of endorsements.
Seeking parole after four decades in prison for a murder, rape and robbery he committed as a 16-year-old, Roby won the vote of Illinois Prisoner Review Board member Peter Fisher.
In more than three years on the board, Fisher has voted against parole 160 times and in favor just once, according to an Injustice Watch review of the board’s parole votes since January 2013. Roby, now 57, was the only prisoner whose petition for parole got his support.
Fisher is the least likely member of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board to vote for parole but not the only one to routinely lean against release. Several of the board members typically vote against releasing any of the roughly 120 prisoners who are locked up for crimes committed more than 40 years ago, before Illinois law was changed to largely abolish parole. Eight current board members have voted to deny parole in about four of every five cases heard since 2013.
The board’s votes reflect a general resistance from families of victims and the public to grant parole even decades after crimes were committed.
But, citing the costs of continued incarceration, especially as prisoners grow old, and the unlikelihood that, in their advanced age, they’d still pose a danger to the public, some prison reform advocates and criminal justice experts have argued that greater consideration should be given toward releasing these inmates on parole.
State law calls for the board to have 15 members appointed by the governor for six-year terms. Gov. Bruce Rauner appointed members this month to fill three vacancies. Those new members were not included in the review of voting records.
The chairman is paid $95,900 a year. Other board members get $85,900.
Prisoners seeking parole need to win support from a majority of the full board. So board members who are absent or who abstain have, in effect, voted against release.
Fisher — the former police officer from central Illinois who has voted for parole just once — has been on the board for 191 votes.
William Norton, a former attorney and prosecutor, has been on the board since 2012. Of 358 votes Norton has cast, he has voted in an inmate’s favor just five times — 1.4 percent of the time.
Neither responded to requests for comment. Nor did Craig Findley, the state board’s chairman, who voted in favor of parole requests 29.6 percent of the time, second-highest on the board.
The board member who most often favored parole is former social worker Edith Crigler, who voted for parole in 119 times in 366 cases — 32.5 percent.
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Reviewing the voting records was hampered by the board’s poor record-keeping. Though the law requires public agencies to post minutes of board meetings online and make them readily available, the board denied a request in November for five years of minutes, saying that providing those would be too cumbersome. Nine months later, after an appeal of that decision to the Illinois attorney general’s office, the board still hasn’t produced minutes from its 2012 meetings.
And the minutes that were made public have errors, inconsistencies and missing information. Injustice Watch resolved several discrepancies either with notes taken by reporters, if they were present, or from the John Howard Association, a corrections policy watchdog group whose volunteers routinely keep their own record of board actions.
At a March 2016 meeting, two inmates were granted parole, according to the John Howard Association. The board didn’t release minutes from that meeting. Minutes it released from August 2016 contradicted notes from the meeting the board provided reporters last year.
Prisoner Review Board spokesman Jason Sweat says the March 2016 meeting minutes were inadvertently not posted and that the board would upload the minutes. Sweat wouldn’t comment beyond that.
Crigler says she focuses on an inmate’s progress in prison, not the crime, and leans against parole for serial killers and those she thinks wouldn’t be likely to reintegrate successfully into society after decades incarcerated.
“You can really get to see that these women and men have made monumental leaps between what they did 30 to 40 years ago and who they are now,” Crigler says. “A lot of our board members are former police officers or prosecutors, and they look at the letter of the law. Whether that’s right or wrong, who am I to say?”
When Roby’s case came up last year, Fisher joined 10 colleagues in voting for his release. One board member was absent, and another recused himself from voting because he’d previously been Roby’s attorney.
In June, Roby went free for the first time since he was a teenager, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. Even if he hadn’t been paroled, he already was set to be released about a year later, when he would have finished his sentence.
Emily Hoerner and Jeanne Kuang are reporters for Injustice Watch, a nonpartisan, not-for-profit journalism organization that conducts in-depth research to expose institutional failures that obstruct justice and equality.