On Tuesday, President Donald Trump commuted former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich prison sentence for multiple counts of obstruction.
There is a deep irony in Blagojevich receiving such an act of executive grace.
As governor, Blagojevhich routinely ignored similar pleas made by people who were wasting away in prisons throughout the state, leaving behind a backlog of more than 2,500 requests for commutation or pardon.
In Illinois, executive clemency is an expansive power, allowing the governor “grant reprieves, commutations and pardons, after conviction, for all offenses on such terms as he thinks proper.” Clemency has been a tool for many of Illinois’s greatest reforms, from the effective elimination of the death penalty in Illinois to the expungement of thousands of marijuana convictions.
The need for an expansive use of commutation in Illinois has never been greater. There are almost 40,000 people in Illinois’ prisons, crammed into a system designed to house only 27,000. Our state’s outsized prison population is the result of truly excessive sentences, ones that are out of step with sentences in the rest of the country.
Illinois not only is one of just nine states in which more than 1,000 people are serving sentences greater than 50 years; in Illinois’ prisons, more than 4,500 people are serving such sentences.
More than a quarter of the people in Illinois prisons are serving sentences greater than 20 years. Hundreds of people are serving natural life sentences for crimes other than murder. One in seven incarcerated people in Illinois will leave prison not through a door, but in a box.
Illinois has done away with many of the mechanisms that other states rely on to make sure that people who can be safely returned to the community do not languish in prison.
Our state abolished parole in 1978. Eleven years later, Illinois made it extraordinarily difficult, and often impossible, for people in prison to get their sentences reduced through good behavior.
Illinois has no mechanism for releasing the terminally ill or the medically incapacitated. Our state has rendered rehabilitation, personal growth and mercy irrelevant.
In this landscape of despair, executive commutation of a sentence has remained a glimmering hope for thousands upon thousands of people who simply should not be in prison.
We are talking about people like Basil Powell, a 69-year-old man who has served more than 36 years of a natural life sentence for his role as the getaway driver in gas station robberies in which no one was hurt. He was sentenced to die in prison even though he was unarmed during the robberies, even though his armed codefendant went home after six years, and even though he has a wife, a daughter and four grandchildren at home.
Blagojevich, who yesterday was the beneficiary of executive grace, ignored the petition of Basil Powell, just as he ignored thousands upon thousands of other equally reasonable and compelling requests for relief.
Many incarcerated people who have requested that their sentences be commuted remain in custody not because they pose a danger to society, or because anyone continues to believe that their individual sentences are moral or just.
They remain in custody simply because the State of Illinois has stripped away every other meaningful mechanism for granting common sense or discretionary release.
When Trump set Blagojevich free, we were reminded of the incredible power of executive clemency to further true criminal justice.
Illinois can no longer ignore thousands of such meritorious cases, and the state can no longer pretend that there is no expedient way to correct an unjust, unnecessary or excessive sentence.
It is time to make proper use of this unique act of grace — executive clemency — and bring real justice to Illinois.
Jennifer Soble is the executive director of the Illinois Prison Project.
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