Put your vote where your mouth is.
That should be the message for General Assembly members engaging in further politicization of the Prisoner Review Board without actively endorsing legislation to correct their perceived problems with the process.
Consider the quote from state Sen. Bill Cunningham, D-Chicago, who spoke to the Chicago Sun-Times after opposing the appointment of Eleanor Kaye Wilson due to her votes, as an acting board member awaiting full confirmation, to approve parole for Joseph Hurst and Johnny Veal, accused of killing Chicago police officers more than 50 years ago.
“No individual who commits such a heinous crime should be eligible for parole,” Wilson said. “The Prisoner Review Board should ensure that the most severe crimes are met with the most severe sanction under the law.”
If Cunningham sincerely believes his first sentence, his solution isn’t in the second, it’s in legislation to make a conviction for killing a law enforcement officer punishable by mandatory life in prison without possibility of parole under any circumstances.
On Jan. 21, state Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, filed Senate Bill 3899, which would reinstate the death penalty in Illinois as a possible punishment for killing a police officer. It has two GOP cosponsors and sits in the Assignments Committee. Three days later state Rep. Dave Severin, R-Benton, filed the substantially similar House Bill 4746, which has six GOP cosponsors and sits in the Rules Committee.
Congressional Republicans are pushing federal legislation – the Defending Our Defenders Act – making a conviction for killing a local, state or federal police officer punishable “by death or by imprisonment for life.”
It’s unlikely significant numbers of Democrats would line up behind capital punishment restoration, but is a compromise on life without parole penalty wholly implausible? Such a solution wouldn’t eliminate the possibility of overturning a wrongful conviction, but that’s a legal process with a much more stringent threshold than a yes-no parole vote form the PRB.
This targeted argument doesn’t address the larger concerns about the PRB’s composition, charge and compensation. Members make $90,000 a year, according to Capitol News Illinois, and make recommendations on clemency, arbitrate good time credit calculations and review cases of parole violators to decide whether they should return to prison.
In pushing for confirmations last week, Gov. JB Pritzker noted parole revocation hearings require three PRB members. Since meetings happen on the same day in multiple areas, it’s not always possible to get three members at each one, which leads to people who break parole terms being automatically freed and deemed not in violation.
Legislation could address procedural issues as well. But haggling over PRB membership doesn’t fix underlying problems. If the real issue is the concept of restorative justice, lawmakers should be direct about their solutions.
• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.