Free some older, nonviolent, longtime prisoners: activist

SHARE Free some older, nonviolent, longtime prisoners: activist
SHARE Free some older, nonviolent, longtime prisoners: activist

Should prisoners over age 50 who have served at least 25 years have a chance to get parole?

The Illinois Joint Criminal Justice Reform Committee is holding hearings on prison crowding and sentencing, and here is part of what prison-reform activist Bill Ryan plans to tell the committee on Aug. 19, the second of the committee’s hearings (the first was July 15). Ryan belongs to several groups, including the Illinois Institute for Community Law, the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression-Chicago and Project 1-11, and he  is a co-founder of Stateville Speaks, an Illinois prison newspaper now in its 10th year.

Quotes from his planned testimony. :

— “During the past 20 years I have come to know many elderly men and women in prison. I consider many of them good friends. Many have reformed themselves and present no threat to anybody. There are others who should not be released. I am convinced that a human being is more than the worst thing he or she has done.”

— “In Illinois, there are about 49,000 people in prison and another 25,000 on parole. About 60 percent of people released come back within three years. This is a failing system.”

— “Currently there are about 800 men and women who meet these criteria. (Twenty years ago there were 32.) If 100 of the 800 eligible people were to earn parole, the state would reduce expenditures by $7.5 million.”

— “Some victims’ families, supported by prosecutors, are opposed to any kind of sentence review. There are other victims’ families who support the Elderly Bill. Please remember in your deliberations that there is no one voice for crime victims’ family members.”

— “With savings from a reduced prison population, money could be directed toward crime victims’ needs—toward helping to restore broken families and communities, toward good rather than harm.”

Ryan previously testified on March 4 about HB 3668, a bill that would have given older prisoners a chance to get parole. He hopes that idea will be part of any new legislation. The committee hopes to have legislation to deal with prison crowding and disparate racial sentencing drawn up by December so it can be voted on in the Legislature’s veto session, he said.

Earlier this month, Gov. Pat Quinn outlined his hopes for the legislation, saying, “As I’ve made clear, it is necessary to take a comprehensive approach to public safety that includes stronger gun laws such as those included in the Public Safety Act, smarter sentencing reforms and greater investments in proven re-entry and diversion programs as I proposed in this year’s budget.”

Co-chair state Rep. Michael Zalewski pushed to form the committee during the spring legislative session.

Read a Feb. 13 Chicago Sun-Times editorial headlined “Take a new look at cost of keeping old prisoners” here.

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