House Bill 4154
As of 1978, Illinois has eliminated the possibility for parole for prisoners. This means those incarcerated after this date are no longer able to receive parole and must serve their designated sentence. For some, this could be a few years. But for others this could be 50 or more years. A bill like House Bill 4154, if passed, would help eliminate prison overpopulation, reduce ailing elderly prisoners, and initiate an attitude of reform in incarcerated men and women.
Rep. Eddie Washington (D-Waukegan) presented this bill to The Illinois General Assembly last session. The new bill would allow for any person over the age of 50, who has served at least 25 years in prison, to petition for an elderly sentence adjustment. The court is provided with the contents of the petition in order to make a decision granting or denying the request. The new bill ensures that the court will consider the petition in its entirety and may not order an early release from imprisonment if the prisoner is a threat to public safety. The court will also have to notify the victim’s families of the petition for early release and the Department of Correction will develop a pilot program for prisoners called the Impact of Crime on Victims Classes, like the one used by Missouri’s Department of Corrections. Some criteria for the petition are proof of successful adjustment in prison, participation in programs specifically designed to restore a prisoner as a useful citizen, showing remorse, the gained ability to socialize, and the renunciation of gang activity if in a gang. If the court finds the prisoner meets these criteria, it may reduce the sentence and set conditions for release (IllinoisInstitute.Net/News.htm).
What defines an elderly offender? Researchers have considered age 45 as elderly for offenders, even though 60 years old is considered the age beyond maturity. “Right now prisons are facing an issue with overpopulation. “In 2003, prisoners 45 and over accounted for 17.8% of sentenced inmates, up from 13% in 1995 (Fields). This is certainly a problem in Illinois-a survey of those in Illinois Department of Corrections prisons on April 5, 2008 shows that 4,709 will be over 50 years old by January 1, 2009 (IDOC website).
One reason for this overpopulation is the elimination of parole which has left so many elderly in prison. Another reason is that sentences have increased dramatically. However, this is leaving us with more nursing homes than prisons. According to Fields, “Over the past decade, the number of sentenced inmates over the age of 45 has grown three times faster than the general prison population, according to Department of Justice figures, driven by a nationwide tough-on-crime attitude and the rise of lengthy mandatory sentences (Fields).”
Prisons are not designed to be “nursing homes.” Aging prisoners require unique care. Many have physical illnesses, mental ailments, and other problems that the elderly face. However, medicine and medical treatment is difficult to come by in prison considering state budget shortfalls. How does punishment matter at this point, when an individual is wasting away behind bars, dealing with sickness and elderly health problems? To have an ill person, not receive proper treatment, is not part of the prison punishment plan. To have individuals suffering, is inhumane. This bill needs to be passed in order to ensure that prisons don’t turn into nursing homes, or final resting places for men and women. A person should not be sick and dying behind bars, if they have rehabilitated. People have a right to basic health care. We should want people to learn and grow, so they can re-enter society with a new mindset. Complicating matters, inmate health care costs have become problematic. According to the American Correctional Association, health care costs nationwide, have risen 42% to $3.7 billion in 2004. Illinois’ medical costs have risen 50% to $101.5 million in 2005 (Fields). Without a change in policy, it is unclear how the state will cover these costs Furthermore, any elderly prisoners feel the prison system doesn’t preserve them, but rather ruins them. According to a study by Gillespie and Galliher, “These incarcerated senior citizens expressed bitterness and resentment as they blamed the penitentiary, for their physical and mental deterioration (Goetting 295).”
Right now prisons are punishment. According to a statement by Ted Pearson, Co-Chairperson of National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression-Chicago said, “An increase in the number of people incarcerated does not correlate with a reduction in crime. Prison is not a deterrent to crime. Furthermore, prison does nothing to restore the victims of crime or heal their families.” Pearson also used the high recidivism rate as evidence that prison is failing to teach offenders to succeed on the outside.
Many prisons don’t offer programs for rehabilitation. However, if there were programs offered then many prisoners would take full advantage of them. Both programs and the potential for early release would help deter crime. According to Pearson, “Punishment is what the current system emphasizes. Sports and educational opportunities are severely restricted or denied all together. Segregation (solitary confinement), restricted visits and phone calls are handed out to prisoners for infractions of the rules of all types.” If instead, prisons chose to offer programs and be less punitive, then prisoners would work harder to become better citizens, and when eligible to apply for an early release, (if legislation like House Bill 4154 were to pass) the courts would consider them good behavior.
The Illinois prison watchdog group, The John Howard Association, organized an art show featuring many long-term prisoners’ works. According to Executive Director Malcolm C. Young, “The value we see is in rehabilitation. Criminals have problems and one of these problems is the inability to communicate (Kalantzis).” If prisons can see that elderly and long term prisoners do in fact need outlets for creativity, then they can positively change and rehabilitate. Hope is one thing that can change a person’s state of mind.
Both sides of the debate want to be heard on their stance on this bill. Victims, are fighting against the bill. Although many prisoners are for this bill to be passed, they want it to be made stronger. A letter from a prisoner, Joseph Greco III, believes that the bill is a “toothless lion, smoke and mirrors, something of form, but nothing in substance (Greco).” He believes that is too weak, and wants to bill to be more than just an idea. Many victims and victims’ families are against the bill, wondering how this can offer any closure for the family’s victims. A website called IllinoisVictims.Org is dedicated to families of victims, and there is an entire page about the House Bill 4154 debate. Many victims have blogged on it and have included essays and stories on issues dealing with the bill.
Although one can never understand how a victim feels, they can try and empathize with them, and listen to their position on this subject. However, it is also difficult to understand what a prisoner’s family is going through, because victims are on both sides of the debate. The prisoner’s family has lost a member too. How can we continue the cycle of loss and pain? After 25 years, people should be considered and evaluated, because some may in fact have changed. Why keep someone in a punitive system that has remorse and shows sorrow? It is almost as cruel to keep them in prison, just like it was cruel of them to commit the crime they did.
If a bill like House Bill 4154 were to pass, it would allow about 658 people to be considered for a sentence adjustment by January 2009 (Pearson). Of these, 177 are sentenced to natural life (Pearson). Keeping men and women in prison, even if they have fully rehabilitated is not only cruel and unjust, but also nonsensical. Overpopulated prisons, rising costs in health care, and funding for programs are all going to cost the state more money every year. A way to decrease spending is by passing the bill. Passing the bill is not just money wise, but also street wise. Releasing people into the world and helping them recover, is a way to get more jobs filled and help the economy. Released prisoners will be aiding our economy by becoming citizens again. Emotionally, though, this is a hard bill to pass because it does affect both parties: the victims and the prisoners. But justice won’t be lost. They will have served 25 years in prison. Keeping them in prison longer is inhumane and perpetuates an idea of revenge that so many are driven by. If we don’t change things now, then eventually, an eye for eye will make the world blind.
Fields, Gary. “Out of Time: As Prisoners Age, Terminally Ill Raise Tough Questions.” The Wall Street Journal 29 Sept. 2005.
Goetting, Ann. “The Elderly in Prison: Issues and Perspectives.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 20 (1983): 291+.
Greco III, Joseph J. “HB 4154- Elderly Sentence Adjustment.” Letter to Bill Ryan. 18 Mar. 2008. Westchester, Il.
Illinois General Assembly. 18 Oct. 2008 <http://www.ilga.gov>.
Illinois Institute for Community Law and Affairs website. 17 Oct. 2008 <http://illinoisinstitute.net/news.htm>.
Kalantzis, Dimitrios. “House Bill Would Make Murderers Serving Life Eligible for Parole.” Long Term Prisoners. 25 Aug. 2008. 18 Oct. 2008 <illinoisvictims.org>.
Pearson, Ted. Statement on HB 4154 – Long Term Prisoner Elderly Sentence Adjustment. 30 Apr. 2008. National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. 18 Oct. 2008 <http://www.naarpr.org/>.
Yorston, Graeme A., and Pamela J. Taylor. “Commentary: Older Offenders-No Place To Go?” The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 34 (2006): 333+.
Elderly Sentence Adjustment
HB 4154, the Elderly Sentence Adjustment bill, will be revised and introduced in the Illinois General Assembly in January 2008. As soon as the revised bill is given a number this will be communicated to as many people as we can.
The age (50) and time served (25) will remain as age and time served requirement. The requirements to demonstrate in a variety of specific ways that a person has truly reformed, is remorseful and is not longer a threat to public safety remain. Elderly sentence adjustment will not be for everyone, nor should it be, as this bill is not a “get out of jail free card.” The petition for elderly sentence adjustment will be sent to the Prison Review Board and victims families will receive timely notificaton. There will be a requrement for electronic monitoring and community service for those who have sentence adjusted.
Supporters are needed to ensure passage. Anyone wishing to advocate for elderly sentence adjustment should contact Bill Ryan, at 2237 Sunnyside, Westchester, Il 60154; by email at email@example.com, by phone at 708.531.923