Dying, disabled prisoners who aren’t a threat shouldn’t be kept behind bars

The Illinois Prisoner Review Board, as of mid-August, has denied nearly two-thirds of medical release requests.

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Seth Perlman/AP

No one wants to look soft on crime.

But when prison inmates are so disabled or terminally sick — or both — that they pose no threat to society, the state should be more open to releasing them under a 2022 law enacted for just that purpose.

Yet the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, as of mid-August, has denied nearly two-thirds of medical release requests from dying and disabled prisoners who met the medical criteria to get out of prison, according to an Injustice Watch/WBEZ report that appeared in Sunday’s Chicago Sun-Times.

The review board needs to be wary of freeing inmates who don’t meet the criteria set out in the law. Yet it makes no sense to keep inmates behind bars, costing the state hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical costs, when they could be released and on Medicare.

Editorial

Editorial

Releasing them also would be humane, making life easier for family members who could more easily be with relatives in their final hours. In addition, freeing inmates would leave more money to improve health care for other prisoners, who now are not receiving adequate care, according to a federal monitor’s report in March.

At first, to make the law work, the state faced such hurdles as underfunding, as overworked staff members struggled to evaluate which inmates qualified under the law and finding places for them to go.

But now the larger issue appears to be the review board itself. Those who have watched how it operates say it grants relief too rarely, partly because its 12 current members, both Democratic and Republican, tilt toward political conservatism.

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“It does appear based on the numbers and on the cases whether someone’s petition is approved really seems to be dependent on the makeup of that panel,” Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association, a prison reform group, told us. “That is not how the law was intended to function.”

The review board has been mired in politics, coming under attack both from Republicans and moderate Democrats. Last year, the state Senate left the board temporarily unable to achieve a quorum after it rejected a prospective member nominated by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

It’s an issue that won’t go away. According to the Illinois Prison Project, the number of incarcerated elderly people tripled from 2005 to 2022 and is now more than a fifth of the state’s prison population.

States across the nation have enacted laws to allow disabled or terminally ill patients to be freed because the idea make sense.

It’s time for Illinois to make sure its own law works as intended.

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