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Illinois Enacts Youthful Parole for Some

by Clifford Powers

Illinois Governor JB Pritzker made history on April 1, 2019, when he signed a bill creating Illinois’ first new parole system since it was effectively abolished in 1978. Before this, only those incarcerated for over 40 years, i.e. sentenced prior to 1978, were allowed in front of the Prisoner Review Board (“PRB”) for a periodic parole hearing.

Dubbed the Youthful Parole Law (“the Law”), 730 ILCS 5/5-4.5-110 is said to be the first step toward restoring a more expansive parole system and “put Illinois on course to becoming a model for criminal justice reform,” said Pritzker at the bill-signing ceremony. 

The Law gets its name from the fact that it only applies to those individuals who were under 21 at the time their offense was committed. The bill’s architect and chief advocate, Restore Justice, wanted to focus on young adults and hope that the limited reinstatement will ease legislators’ concerns, paving the way for future efforts. 

In addition to the age requirement, there are crime-specific criteria for when a person becomes eligible to go before the PRB. For the majority of offenses, an individual will be eligible after serving 10 years of his or her sentence. 

If denied the first time, they have two more opportunities at the 15- and 20-year marks. Those convicted of first-degree murder or aggravated criminal sexual assault are eligible after serving 20 years, with a second chance at 30 years. Eligible prisoners must submit a petition for a hearing three years in advance. 

Prisoners sentenced to natural life without parole and those convicted of predatory criminal sexual assault or murder of a peace officer are excluded.

Once a petition has been filed, the PRB has the power to investigate the petitioner’s prison history, as well as his or her efforts at rehabilitation. It may also hear testimony from victims, witnesses, and “other concerned citizens.”

Another positive aspect of the Law is that petitioners are allowed legal counsel at the hearing, and indigent prisoners may have counsel appointed. 

What it does not have is a retroactivity clause, although the original version of the bill did. Law enforcement, state’s attorneys, and victims’ rights groups strongly opposed retroactive application, with many state’s attorneys arguing that it would be unconstitutional. 

Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group, and others are reportedly working to change this. Effort is being put forth to pass House Bill 2039, which would allow prisoners to petition the court to apply any new law that would reduce their sentence. It continues to gain support, but it’s unclear whether it would affect the Youthful Parole Law. 

The Law became effective June 1, 2019, and applies to anyone sentenced on or after that date. And though it’s not retroactive, there is a small loophole: Anyone who otherwise meets the criteria and has his or her sentence vacated, then is sentenced anew on or after the effective date will then be eligible.

As it is, the PRB must prepare to begin hearing petitions from those who have been fighting their case in county jail for years and will be sentenced in the near future. 

Marshan Allen, board member and project manager at Restore Justice, spent 26 years in prison as a juvenile lifer. Since his release last year, Allen has worked to get the parole bill passed, and he and others are now working with the PRB. As Allen says, “there’s still a lot of work to do, but this is a great first step to reinstate parole in our state.” 

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Sources: pjstar.com, restorejustice.org

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