Crime is spiking, but parole and rehabilitation for prisoners still make sense

Prison reform advocates say historically, there have been long waiting lists for virtually every program to help inmates better themselves.

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An inmate at Pontiac Correctional Institution.

An inmate at Pontiac Correctional Institution.

Seth Perlman/AP file photo.

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

Parole allows prisoners who have served a significant percentage of their sentences to go before a parole board and demonstrate they have rehabilitated themselves and are no longer a threat to society. It gives inmates an incentive to educate themselves, gain skills and get mental health care behind bars. It gives prisons a reason to provide those services.



But Illinois stopped its across-the-board parole program in 1978. Inmates who were sentenced before then still periodically ask the Illinois Prisoner Review Board for parole, but there aren’t many of them left. Most inmates sentenced since then serve out a predetermined percentage of their sentences, and then they are freed on what is technically mandatory supervised release, even though people often refer to it as parole.

So-called determinant sentences pigeonhole everyone into the same category. It doesn’t matter if some inmates change their lives after they are incarcerated. They may spend the same amount of time behind bars as prisoners with the same sentences who sit around watching TV.

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

That’s a step in the right direction, but it excludes many inmates.

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 qualify for 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 board seats would be set aside for those with police or prosecution experience.

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

But Illinois should not rush to drastically rein in parole, however. As it is, the nonpartisan Prison Policy Initiative gives Illinois’ parole system a grade of F-. Illinois is one of about a dozen states to have abolished discretionary parole.

Not a get-out-of-jail-free card

Now is the time for another approach: expanding parole. A bill to grant the possibility of parole after 20 years went nowhere last year in the Legislature. A new bill making it possible to ask for parole after 25 years, for inmates 55 and older, is in the hopper for the coming session.

Parole doesn’t give prisoners a get-out-of-jail card. Historically, it has been difficult to persuade the Prisoner Review Board to grant parole. Parole simply gives inmates an opportunity to state 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 granting parole. Parole board members must be judicious as they make decisions about whom to release. Someone on parole might commit another crime, but so might an inmate who served his or her full sentence. There’s a risk in both cases, but the chance of parole is at least an incentive for an inmate to participate in rehabilitation while in prison.

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

The state has been falling short in that task. It’s complicated to measure now because of COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantines, but prison reform advocates say historically, there have been long waiting lists for virtually every program designed to help inmates better themselves.

Police and state and local officials should do all they can to prevent and solve violent crimes. Guilty offenders must be held accountable. But once in prison, inmates should have access to programs to help ensure they don’t re-offend when they get out.

The Illinois Constitution says one objective of prisons is “restoring the offender to useful citizenship.”

A better parole system and more rehabilitate programs can help Illinois live up to that.

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