Should Illinois bring back parole?

Former Wheaton College debater urges state to consider freeing longtime prisoners.

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Michael Simmons spoke at a convocation for North Park University’s School of Restorative Arts inside Stateville Correctional Center in 2019. He is serving a prison term until 2052 for a murder he committed in 2001.

Michael Simmons spoke at a convocation for North Park University’s School of Restorative Arts inside Stateville Correctional Center in 2019. He is serving a prison term until 2052 for a murder he committed in 2001.

Photo by Karl Clifton-Soderstrom

There is no parole in Illinois. I did not know that until Katrina Burlet told me.

“We got rid of our parole system in 1978,” said Burlet, campaign strategy director of Parole Illinois, a coalition committed to addressing the needs of prisoners.

Along with Illinois, 15 other states have abolished parole. California, on the other hand, has mandatory parole and in August pushed the issue into the headlines when a parole board voted to free Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.

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This is one of those debates where people of goodwill can have opposing views. You could argue that Sirhan’s crime is so vile, not only snuffing out the life of a father of 11 but a beloved leader who inspired millions, that he should never go free. I can see that.

Or you could counter that 53 years in prison is punishment aplenty, that keeping Sirhan in jail until he dies won’t bring RFK back, that we are too punitive a nation already, with 1.8 million incarcerated at any time. I can see that too.

Burlet is pushing Senate Bill 2333, which would allow convicted criminals in Illinois who have served 20 years in prison to be eligible for a parole hearing.

“It restores parole for people serving the longest sentences,” she said.

People like Michael Simmons. Burlet came to this issue after running a debate program at Stateville Correctional Center. I asked her to put me in touch with a prisoner who might be affected by changes in the law, and she offered Simmons, convicted of murder in 2001 for killing Kurt Landrum during a robbery and sentenced to 50 years.

How did he come to kill somebody?

“My case,” Simmons wrote, “was not a result of one bad decision to participate in an incident that ultimately led to a man’s death. Long before that, other factors contributed to a mind-state which lacked the foresight and care of thinking things through.”

The strongest argument for such a bill, to my thinking, besides the enormous cost of warehousing aging prisoners, is that people do sometimes change, and that just as Sirhan Sirhan at 77 is not the 24-year-old who pulled the trigger, so Simmons in his 40s is not the same man he was in his 20s. To keep someone in prison for a crime done decades earlier has a whiff of the injustice of punishing one man for a crime done by another.

In prison, Simmons is earning a masters from North Park University in Christian ministry.

“I have changed,” Simmons wrote. He’s due to be released in 2052, but would like to be free before that “to have more opportunities to use my life experience as well as my education to help bring healing to individuals and communities.”

Sincere conversion? Jailhouse scam? Your answer probably reflects more about yourself than it does about Simmons. Burlet certainly thinks he deserves freedom. Why? She graduated from Wheaton College in 2015, and that fact struck me as crucial to her advocacy about this issue and this bill.

“For me, it’s 100% about my faith in Christ,” she agreed. “Literally, this is the gospel. Jesus came so that everyone who has done bad things can be forgiven and live freely. I don’t understand why the whole church isn’t about forgiveness. Redemption is the gospel and we can actually practice these things.”

Sometimes. The bill is not exactly breezing through Springfield.

“Legislators aren’t on board,” she allowed, with a short laugh.

That’s because macho posturing — all those TV commercials with Republican politicians blasting away with their AR-15s — has become the default in this country. You can’t go wrong talking tough. This is, as I said, an issue where people can take up either side. Even Kennedy’s children split on Sirhan’s parole, some vigorously advocating for his release, others insisting he die in prison.

If I had to come down on one side, I would suggest we err toward mercy. The world has many flaws, but being too kind isn’t one of them. The opportunity for society to improve, just as the chance for ourselves to become better people, is always present, provided we work toward it. If I recall, that was a sentiment RFK himself expressed.

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