House Republicans urge more transparency on inmate releases
Pritzker administration says it’s complying with laws and regulations
By PETER HANCOCK
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – Illinois House Republicans on Monday, April 27, stepped up their demands that the Pritzker administration release more information about inmates being furloughed or granted early releases from state prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic.
They also requested the governor consult more with the General Assembly about granting such releases.
“As a co-equal branch of government, we shouldn’t have to wait and learn of all of this from media reports,” Rep. Avery Bourne, of Morrisonville, said during a video news conference. “We should not have had to learn from a media report that between March 2 and April 10, there were 1,300 prison inmates who were released through executive action. As a co-equal branch of government, we should have known about this ahead of time.”
Gov. JB Pritzker issued an executive order April 6 allowing the Illinois Department of Corrections to grant medical furloughs to inmates beyond the standard 14-day limit.
But he has also used his executive authority to commute the sentences of 20 inmates since declaring a state of disaster on March 9, according to the Prisoner Review Board, and IDOC has used its administrative authority to grant early releases to hundreds of inmates to reduce the prison population and the risk of exposing both inmates and prison staff to the virus.
Pritzker estimated that more than 1,300 inmates had been released since he issued the disaster declaration, although he said he did not have an exact number when asked at his news conference Monday.
Pritzker said previously that his goal was to release inmates who were incarcerated for relatively low-level offenses and people who were nearing the end of their prison term anyway.
But Rep. John Cabello, of Machesney Park, said the releases have gone far beyond those criteria to include 47 people convicted of murder, including at least two who had decades left on their sentences. He specifically identified inmates Bobby Wilson and Brian Harrington, both under the age of 30. Wilson was not scheduled for release until 2049, according to IDOC records, while Harrington was scheduled to remain behind bars until 2032. A review of their cases, though, reveals that both men were tried and convicted as adults for crimes they committed as teenagers. Wilson was released April 2, one week after the First District Appellate Court reversed his conviction on the grounds that he was too young to understand the consequences of waiving his Miranda rights. Harrington’s attorneys and family had sought clemency for him last year, and he has been cited by the advocacy group Campaign for Youth Justice as an example of the harshness that results from trying teens as adults.
Cabello also said lawmakers want to make sure that crime victims and their families are being properly notified when an offender is released. “We need to make sure that the victims’ families have been notified,” he said. “And I sure hope that none of these people reoffend because I will hold this governor personally responsible if any of these folks reoffend and hurt somebody else, and I would sure hope that the rest of the state does that as well.” But IDOC spokeswoman Lindsey Hess said in an email that crime victims and local law enforcement agencies are being notified of the releases.
“State’s attorneys receive an email notification when an incarcerated individual is released early,” she said. “Victims are notified by the Prisoner Review Board and the (Automated Victim Notification) system sends notifications to those who register.” Nevertheless, Republicans argued that the administration should consult with them more about decisions to grant early release and, at the least, explain the criteria being used to grant clemency and early releases.
Rep. Terri Bryant, of Murphysboro, said she is a retired employee of IDOC and remains in regular contact with counselors and other staff in the prison system who tell her there doesn’t appear to be any consistency in the standards. “The counselors are tasked with looking at the case files of individuals and then determining who meets the criteria,” she said. “Well guess what, the criteria is changing every two or three days. So I get a glimpse of what some of that criteria is because individuals at Department of Corrections are sharing that with me. However, we as legislators don’t know what that criteria is. And I don’t think we’ll have the chance to know what the criteria is because then everyone would know how this has been shifting.”
During his daily COVID-19 media briefing Monday, Pritzker said he is willing to provide whatever information the lawmakers want. “We’ll be happy to provide information to anyone,” he said. “I don’t have the numbers right here. I can tell you that we’ve overall reduced the population in our prisons by, I know, it’s more than 1,300. Overall, many of those were near the end of their terms or actually their sentences were up, but also many of them were under this program of either medical furloughs due to COVID-19 or other reasons for pardons or commutations on my part.”
IDOC spokeswoman Hess noted that the department has statutory authority to place offenders on electronic detention or award earned “discretionary credit” in order to reduce an inmate’s sentence. A list of all of the discretionary credits granted since March 1, 945 in all, is posted on the IDOC website.