Over the past two weeks the IL senate has done something unprecedented. It failed to confirm appointees to the Prisoner Review Board, three individuals with solid qualifications, some even unanimously approved by a subcommittee.
As a result, the Prisoner Review Board has only six members and is unable to complete some of its vital tasks such as granting parole, reviewing clemency petitions, and holding hearings for individuals charged with violating the terms of their parole. The Senate and Governor Pritzker need to act immediately to rectify this situation.
The Illinois Prisoner Review Board (PRB) is a body of 15 governor-appointed members. By law, the PRB is equal parts Democrats and Republicans. The PRB is responsible for crucial functions of Illinois’ legal system. These functions include: setting mandatory supervised release conditions, reviewing parole petitions, conducting hearings for people in violation of their release, advising the governor on clemency requests, revoking or restoring good conduct credits, and notifying victims of upcoming parole review or release of relevant individuals. To perform several of these integral functions, the PRB must have a quorum.
Since the creation of the PRB, this has not been a problem and the PRB has maintained a quorum of eight without issue. Recent circumstances have left the board with only six members. On March 22nd and March 28th, the Illinois Senate denied two nominees and, also on March 28th, one nominee resigned. The six remaining members, three of whom have yet to be confirmed by the Illinois Senate, are unable to perform some of their most important obligations and the impact is nothing short of disastrous. Alan Mills, a Chicago human rights lawyer, describes this situation as, “a total disaster” and several other Illinois attorneys have stressed the impact it has on their clients. Jennifer Soble, Executive Director of the Illinois Prison Project, reminds us that, “the human toll is real: justice will be delayed for our clients and for many other people in prison awaiting the chance to be reunited with loved ones.”.
At EJP, we are seeing this situation take its toll on our members and their loved ones. A key function that the board is unable to perform without a quorum is advising the governor on clemency requests. As a result, upcoming quarterly clemency hearings have been indefinitely postponed – even the governor himself cannot predict how long it will take to get the board to a quorum.
Lee Ragsdale, Director of EJP’s Reentry Guide Initiative (RGI), stresses that this process is already a lengthy one without the current delays. Her husband is currently seeking clemency. They anticipated a 15-month process, the average timeframe for clemency review, and were eagerly preparing for an April 2022 hearing when they received news that the hearing had been postponed indefinitely. Where there was growing hope of even a “tiny win” through the clemency process, there is now more uncertainty than ever.
Lee emphasizes how important it is for the public to understand the functions of the PRB and to speak with their lawmakers to ensure they know that a fully functioning PRB is essential. The current halt in PRB operations affects both currently and formerly incarcerated people, as well as the communities that support them. She urges readers to educate themselves on the consequences of recent decisions and future developments as this situation changes.
These circumstances are unprecedented. So why and how is this happening?
Typically, the governor nominates an individual to serve on the PRB. The Senate has 60 session days to consider the nomination. If the Senate does not confirm or deny the nominee within 60 days, the governor can re-appoint the nominee or appoint a different nominee. Nominees serve on an interim basis until considered by the Senate.
Neither the role of the board nor the process for appointing members has changed, but recent criticism of the board’s composition and previous high-profile decisions have fueled politicians on both sides to challenge what has otherwise been the status quo – to approve qualified nominees. This is not an issue of qualifications. Mills suggests, “politicians have turned this into a campaign issue” and Soble points out that, “this is the result of failed tough-on–crime rhetoric meant merely to incite fear and score cheap political points.”
Whatever the reason that this board has come under attack, it is critical that politicians act on their PRB obligations. The Senate has until April 8th to consider current nominees acting on an interim basis – LeAnn Miller, Jared Bohland, and Ken Tupy. However, this alone would not be enough to restore the board to a quorum. Governor J.B. Pritzker also needs to nominate additional people. The governor can nominate individuals now and after April 8 when the Senate recesses. Currently, the governor is interviewing candidates.
Until the PRB is restored to full functioning, thousands of people in Illinois affected by incarceration are at risk of further unnecessary punishment and pain. If you would like to join efforts and be notified of new developments, contact Lee Ragsdale at firstname.lastname@example.org to be added to a rapid response group of people concerned about the full functioning of the Prisoner Review Board.