Illinois Prisoner Review Board should not be crippled for political gain

Despite the hyperbole and tough-on-crime rhetoric from Republican lawmakers, the Review Board is a moderate body, integral to the functioning of the justice system.

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In this May 2010 file photo, a van drives past the Thomson Correctional Center in Thomson, Ill.

In this May 2010 file photo, a van drives past the Thomson Correctional Center in Thomson, Ill.

AP Photo/M. Spencer Green

A little known but crucial government body is the latest in the crosshairs of uncontrolled and baseless tough-on-crime rhetoric.

The Illinois Prisoner Review Board — a body of 15 governor-appointed members that adjudicates mandatory supervised release violations, sets release conditions and advises the governor on clemency requests — has drawn the attention and ire of Republican state senators who seem determined to entirely eviscerate the body.

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Despite the hyperbole from lawmakers, the Review Board is a moderate body integral to a functioning legal system. Composed of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats by law, many current board members were initially appointed or reappointed by former Gov. Bruce Rauner, including chairwoman Edith Crigler.

Each month, the Review Board sets release conditions for thousands of people whose sentences have ended and who will transition to mandatory supervised release, an often onerous process served after a person completes the full term of their imprisonment. The Review Board also holds hundreds of hearings each month for people in violation of their release, sometimes even for minor technical violations like a missed appointment. If these hearings do not occur within 90 days of the date a person is re-imprisoned, the person is simply released.

The Review Board also processes and makes recommendations on requests for clemency, a mechanism enshrined in the Illinois constitution and intended by our state’s framers as an important check on the legal system. It’s meant to bring justice to people sentenced to unjustly long prison terms, and to recognize growth and transformation in a system that does neither. It works in concert with the legal system, not in opposition to it.

Despite the constant stream of vitriol and fear-mongering, the flow of mercy has remained a slow drip, not a firehose. Of the handful of people released since Gov. J.B. Pritzker took office, most were seriously ill or spent decades behind bars serving sentences that research shows could cause more crime, not less.

Although the Review Board’s work has not changed under Pritzker, its composition has: Today’s board is the most diverse in Illinois history. Whereas the Review Board was historically dominated by white men, today’s board includes people with a variety of experiences and from an array of backgrounds. They are women and people of color. They are former correctional employees, victims’ rights advocates, prosecutors, police officers and restorative justice practitioners. While maintaining an overwhelming workload crucial to the basic operation of both the criminal legal and correctional systems, the board members have brought wisdom, experience and perspective that reflect Illinois’ diverse population.

It is this diverse board that has come under attack from both Republicans and moderate Senate Democrats. During the recent meeting of the Senate Executive Appointments Committee, one Republican senator accused Pritzker of political gamesmanship for withdrawing and subsequently re-appointing members to the board after lawmakers failed to vote on numerous appointments.

But lawmakers left Pritzker with little choice: Senate rules require the chamber to consider a governor’s nominee within 60 session days. If lawmakers fail to act on a nomination, the governor is empowered to withdraw and re-appoint a nominee to serve on an interim basis. It’s a routine process that has been used by governors of both parties for a wide range of appointments.

Republicans are using this routine process as a political firebomb, and are threatening to eviscerate the board entirely. The Senate has now rejected the appointment of former correctional officer Jeff Mears, leaving the board without sufficient numbers to maintain its operations.

These attacks are not only disingenuous, they threaten to grind the board — and thus the criminal legal system — to a halt. As with every aspect of governing, sound policy is based on evidence and comes from collaboration, not bombastic hyperbole.

We urge lawmakers to fully empower the Review Board to carry out its duties as generations of lawmakers intended, not to cripple it for political gain.

Jennifer Soble is the executive director of the Illinois Prison Project.

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