Thursday, May 19, 2022

What’s next for the Illinois parole board?

Johnson County resident not retained on board

By Beth Hundsdorfer

Capitol News Illinois

In a rare move earlier this week, the state Senate rejected a gubernatorial appointee to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board that passed through its Executive Appointment Committee with a recommendation.

The Senate vote may be the beginning salvo in the battle of the remaining Prisoner Review Board appointments and other criminal justice reform measures. For Pritzker’s PRB appointees awaiting Senate confirmation, the clock is ticking. The five pending appointments must be approved by the Senate by close of business on Monday or they are automatically approved.

For Jeff Mears, it’s over.

Mears, a former painter for the Illinois Department of Corrections, did not get the required 30 votes in the Senate to keep his job at the Illinois Prisoner Review Board – the board that decides whether offenders are released from prison and under what conditions.

Before the vote, Mears passed through the Executive Appointment Committee on Tuesday and received a recommendation. Later that day, the Senate Democrats split, with 22 voting yes and 18 Democrats not voting. Sen. Patrick Joyce, D-Essex, joined the 18 GOP members and voted no. Mears fell eight votes short of being approved and lost his spot.

“It’s surprising that anybody would vote him down, that people wouldn’t show up to vote,” Pritzker said Wednesday at a press event. “What Republicans are trying to do is to essentially break down a function of government. They want to do away with it just like during the Rauner years. So much was done to break down the functions of government, the agencies of government. This is not right.”

Pritzker said it bothers him that the Democrats didn’t vote to approve Mears.

“It bothers me that they are listening to the Republican rhetoric. They are telling false stories. It’s Facebook fakery about these folks who are nominated. These are people who have served and served well and they deserve to be approved,” he said.

Mears worked as a painter for more than 20 years at Shawnee Correctional Center in Vienna. Wardens there had Mears serve as a hostage negotiations coordinator and member of the elite negotiations team and statewide audit review team.

Under the law, members of the board must have at least 5 years of actual experience in the fields of penology, corrections work, law enforcement, sociology, law, education, social work, medicine, psychology, other behavioral sciences, or some combination of those.

The law also states that no more than eight PRB members may be members of the same political party. Mears is a Democrat from Vienna.

Mears also served as the Johnson County Board chairman. He was the front-man for a rock band called “Plain Strange” and “Cache River Band.”

Mears did not return a call for comment.

Gamesmanship or legal function?

Scrutiny regarding the PRB appointments began last year after Pritzker appointed, then pulled, then reappointed the same candidates. Republicans called the process a “scandal.”

But Pritzker countered that it was a legal and necessary way to keep his appointees in place and blamed Senate inaction for creating the necessity for pulling appointments to keep the parole board functioning.

Currently, there are eight members on the 15-member board. Of those, five need Senate approval.

Mears received his appointment in March 2021. In May 2021, he was driving to Springfield to appear before the Senate committee when he received a call that his appointment had been pulled by Pritzker.

Mears was one of five PRB members who had their appointments withdrawn and resubmitted by Pritzker. Oreal James and Eleanor Kaye Wilson were appointed by Pritzker in April 2019, but those appointments were withdrawn in March 2021 and submitted just days later. 

Mears replaced another southern Illinois Democrat, Wayne Dunn, a former high school guidance counselor then administrator and counselor at the Illinois Youth Center in Harrisburg.

Dunn was not reappointed by Pritzker.

“It was the crown jewel of my career,” Dunn said when reached by phone earlier this week. “I was proud of what I did there.”

As part of their job, PRB members attend hearings around the state throughout the week and may have to travel to Springfield or Chicago for the bigger hearings. According to the minutes, they may hear three to five cases at each hearing. It also takes time to prepare for those hearings, reading files, verifying claims, maybe conducting interviews. The salary for the position is roughly $90,000.

According to Parole Illinois, an advocacy group, Dunn voted in 191 cases and ruled in favor of offenders nearly 22 percent of the time. Mears voted in favor of offenders about 28 percent of the time, according to the Republicans.

Those favorable offender numbers are less than other appointees who still face a Senate confirmation.

The 2018 research study conducted by Parole Illinois found that there should be change to the process.

“The way the board members are appointed and approved should be amended to increase the institutional independence,” the study stated.

Appointments and removal are up to the governor with the consent of the Senate. This, the study found, creates an institutional structure where board members may be removed as easily as they are appointed. The governor determines that the board is qualified and diverse in backgrounds and experience, the study found, which is inappropriate given how the political tides fluctuate.

“This method of appointment and removal creates a board full of members vulnerable to undue political influence,” the study stated. “Instead of gubernatorial appointments, Illinois should adopt a new process for appointment where a special panel made up of representatives from different branches of government and the criminal justice system makes board recommendations to the governor.”

The figures bear out this conclusion. For the eight PRB members who served under both Rauner and Pritzker, the number of votes for parole under Pritzker at least doubled for every member from what they were under Rauner.

The task of the PRB is passing judgment on people who have done “terrible things,” Pritzker said, including those convicted of murdering police and children.

One controversial case involving most of the pending appointees pertained to a mother convicted in the deaths of her two newborn daughters.

Sims admitted that she killed her newborn daughters, Heather in 1989 and Loralei in 1986, and nearly killed her only surviving child, a son, but she contended that she suffered from postpartum psychosis.

She didn’t use the insanity defense on the advice of her then-attorney.

Sims avoided the death penalty and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Pritzker commuted Sims’ sentence to life with the possibility of parole in March 2021.

Prisoner Review Board minutes from Sims’ hearing on Oct. 28, 2020, indicate the only opposition was from Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Haine. Sims had one surviving child, a son named Randall, who was raised by his father, Robert. Robert and Paula Sims had divorced. In 2006, Robert Sims lodged his opposition to his former wife’s release. Nine years later, Robert, 62, and Randall, 27, died in a fiery crash in Mississippi.

In the minutes, a doctor testified he believed that Paula Sims suffered from postpartum psychosis. When asked why only the girls were harmed, the doctor replied that Sims was preparing to harm her son but was interrupted.

But, while in prison, Sims worked directly with another inmate in developing new legislation addressing postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis that was ultimately signed into law by Rauner in January 2018.

Mears voted to parole Sims. Tupy, Miller and James also voted to release Sims. Jared Bohland, a Pritzker appointee also facing Senate confirmation, was the sole dissenting vote. Sims, now 62, was released on Oct. 29, 2021.

Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director for the prison watchdog group The John Howard Association, said that while crimes against children are horrific, they are not necessarily indicative of the person’s future behavior and the threat those who commit these crimes pose to the public decades later.

Without immediate action, the functions of the PRB will slow justice for offenders, she added.

“This is deeply problematic. The Prisoner Review Board needs to be filled and functional,” Vollen-Katz said.

Without approval of the appointees, Pritzker said Wednesday, the PRB can’t get a quorum. The lack of a quorum would mean that the PRB couldn’t function, including ruling on parole violations. That would mean those facing hearings for violations of parole would automatically remain free if there’s not a quorum to hear their case.

“It’s a huge problem,” Pritzker said.

The ACLU of Illinois agreed, saying the PRB plays a critical role in the state’s legal system by offering offenders who served significant time in prison the opportunity for a second chance at freedom and to become positive contributors to society and their families, said Ben Ruddell, criminal justice policy director for the ACLU of Illinois.

And there are the other functions of the PRB. The PRB arbitrates the calculation of good time credit, issues recommendations on pardons and clemency, and reviews cases of those who violate the terms of their parole to decide whether they should be revoked and returned to prison.

Last year, the PRB held 4,595 revocations hearings across the state.

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