Gov. Bruce Rauner has closed a massive backlog of clemency petitions, dating back as far as 2003, and including thousands neglected by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich when he was in office.
The Illinois Prisoner Review Board — which initially reviews the petitions —has estimated Blagojevich acted on less than 25 percent of petitions filed during his tenure.
Former Gov. Pat Quinn inherited nearly 3,000 clemency petitions when Blagojevich was imprisoned. Quinn acted on more than 4,000, but still left well over 2,000 cases for Rauner the moment he became governor.
The Rauner administration has reviewed more than 2,300 clemency petitionsin 24 months, with 2,209 of those pending from previous administrations. To date, clemency has been granted to 79 people for crimes committed in 38 counties, with three commutations also granted.
The Rauner administration has reviewed and acted on all outstanding clemency requests from the prior administrations, while four innocence requests remain outstanding from the prior administrations, the administration said.
“We take this very seriously, and we have spent a lot of time the last two years reviewing cases. Every request gets thoughtful, thorough analysis and discussion,” Rauner told the Sun-Timeson Monday.
Rauner said Blagojevich didn’t give clemency petitions much attention, which he called “unfortunate.”
“Offenders, they deserve respect, and people deserve to be able to get along with their life one way or another and understand where they are, and where they can go. So treating this with respect is important,” Rauner said.
Clearing the backlog was one of Rauner’s many priorities in his criminal justice reform platform. He has signed 14 criminal justice bills since he took office and says he wants to focus on rehabilitation and preventing recidivism.
“The criminal justice system in this state is broken. We focus in Illinois on punishment, rather than getting at the root cause of crime,” Rauner said at a Project HOOD luncheonon Monday. “Let’s get at the root cause of the problem, not just lock people and throw away the key. That’s not justice. That’s not fair. Let’s help with addiction. Let’s help with mental health treatment. Let’s help with job training so when a person makes a mistake, we can help them get back on their feet and lead productive lives.”
He vowed to make more dramatic criminal justice reforms over the next 18 months.
Among those granted clemency by Rauner is 46-year-old Earl Johnson, who was charged with delivery of a controlled substance in 1992 at age 22. He was granted clemency on Nov. 23.
According to his petition, Johnson was born in the Robert Taylor Homes, but raised in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood, where he witnessed plenty of violence. That included watching as a bullet hit just inches from his mother’s head as she sat on a porch.
Frustrated with the violence, he started working for the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy, in which police and residents cooperate to reduce crime. Johnson tried to drive out gangs and make others feel more comfortable in the neighborhood. That led to threats and his garage being burned down by gang members.
After being shot in front of his home in July 2013, Johnson beganspeaking at churches and schools about gang violence — giving parents signs to watch out for and teaching them ways to get their kids out of gangs.
His conviction prevented him from getting hired as a truck driver and an auto supply store. It also stopped him from getting an apartment in Lansing where he wanted to move for his family’s safety.
Johnson is now a custodian for Neighborhood Housing Services, which helps fix up blighted properties, and helps communities feel safe enough to report crime.
The Illinois Prisoner Review Board credited Rauner with clearing the backlog, saying that in doing so, he sent a message that the process is important and that those filing petitions have a right to a timely decision.
“Prior to this Administration, thousands of clemency petitions languished unanswered,” Craig Findley, the board chairman said in a statement. “Today the backlog is eliminated. The Prisoner Review Board is grateful for the governor’s commitment to carefully review and respond to petitions heard by this Administration.”