Oftentimes one of the crucial steps to solving a problem depends on getting the right people to agree a problem exists.
“To provide dignity for all Illinois residents in their final days,” according to a news release describing the legislation, the act “allows for the discretionary early release of those who are medically incapacitated or terminally ill and serving time in an Illinois Department of Corrections facility.”
The key word is discretionary.
The report found the Prisoner Review Board had granted 52 releases since 2022 while denying 94 other applicants. This is a problem for criminal justice reform advocates who saw the Coleman Act as a sharp turning point in Illinois. The idea was to release the medically frail, freeing up much needed resources for prison health care and potentially restoring a shred of dignity to people in their final days.
In order to apply, an inmate needs a diagnosis of an illness expected to kill them within 18 months or verified medical incapacitation, measured by needing help with more than one daily living activity, like eating or using a toilet.
“The Coleman Act is, in fact, being carried out as it should be,” Pritzker told reporters Thursday. While acknowledging some applicants are medically incapable of committing more crimes, he said, “just because the person is ill, doesn’t mean that there aren’t factors that are being considered and need to be considered about a case and whether somebody should be released or not.”
There is a constituency – perhaps a minority, but no less real – for whom “compassionate release” is never acceptable. That group would find 52 prematurely freed inmates far too many, not too few, a viewpoint that underscores the need for the Prisoner Review Board’s role in the process at all.
“The eligibility conditions are extremely strict and narrowly tailored to apply to only the sickest and most expensive people in the prison health care system,” said Jennifer Soble, the Illinois Prison Project executive director instrumental in drafting the Coleman Act. “With that in mind, almost every eligible person should be released if we are to realize the Coleman Act’s purpose.”
The law could’ve been written to leave the discretion to a physician and not the 13 people who meet in groups of three to vote on release requests. (Biographies of most are available at prb.illinois.gov/prbbdmem.html.) If the board is found to be abusing its discretion, there is recourse, but what amounts to a clerical correction offers no humanitarian relief.
Implementing additional reforms will depend on successfully arguing the realized progress continues to fall short.