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Thursday, May 10, 2012 05:25 pm

Should Illinois release old and costly inmates?

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In 2010, Illinois prisons held 223 C-Number inmates who had been there for more than 30 years. These inmates were a part of a sentencing scheme from a different era.

C-Number inmates are prisoners who were sentenced before 1978 to indeterminate sentences – prison terms that only specify a range of years the inmate must stay behind bars, such as being sentenced to serve 20 to 100 years in prison. After 1978, determinate sentencing – including sentencing guidelines, mandatory minimum sentences and stronger sentences for certain crimes – became the preferred sentencing method in Illinois. The term “C-Number” refers to the “C” at the beginning of a prisoner’s identification card, which signifies a prisoner sentenced prior to determinate sentencing. These inmates were typically convicted of murder or rape.

Overcrowded prisons are a problem in Illinois with C-Number inmates being some of the more costly to house.

Bill Ryan, founder of the Statesville Speaks newsletter published by the Justice Studies Department of Northeastern Illinois University, says 223 may not seem like a large number, but C-Number inmates cost between $70,000 and $75,000 to keep in prison. The majority of them are over the age of 50 and their age helps explain why it costs the state so much to keep them in prison.

As C-Number inmates age, the cost to keep them in prison rises primarily due to their health care costs. C-Number inmates cost the state more than $15.6 million a year, an average of $70,000 per person. In 2009, the average inmate in Illinois cost $25,000 to keep in prison, according to the John Howard Association, a statewide prison reform group.

“There really isn’t any logic in keeping some of these people in prison,” Ryan said. “There seems to be a perception that people cannot change, but I believe they can. I know some of the C-Number inmates and after 30 years in the prison system, I know that some have changed.”

C-number inmates are still eligible for parole – getting out early for good behavior – by going in front of the Prisoner Review Board, which ultimately decides the inmates’ fate. The PRB is appointed by the governor of Illinois and currently consists of 13 members, which meet once a month to decide if an inmate deserves parole.

The process to decide if an inmate qualifies for parole involves one board member interviewing a C-Number inmate. The state’s attorney’s office then interviews the friends and family of the victim in the case. The state’s attorney’s office then conducts an opposition hearing and writes an opposition letter, which is sent to the PRB.

The member of the PRB who conducted the interview with the inmate seeking parole presents the case to the PRB, which then takes a vote to decide if parole is granted. An inmate must receive a majority of “yes” votes to receive parole.

Ryan said that the recidivism rate, the rate which an inmate is likely to repeat the offense they were imprisoned for, for C-Number inmates in Illinois is about two or three percent. The overall recidivism rate for all Illinois prisoners is higher than 50 percent.

The John Howard Association of Illinois said there were 275 C-Number inmates in 1978, but in the following 32 years the number dropped to 223 by 2010. It’s unclear how many inmates have died and how many have been paroled.

John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association, said that despite the cost to keep them in prison, some C-Number inmates “tended to be convicted of very serious crimes.”

“These inmates had very high profile crimes usually involving law enforcement or very notorious crimes,” Maki said.

Maki said that another potential reason for the lower number of C-Number inmates receiving parole is that the PRB might place too much emphasis on the inmates’ initial crime and not the possibility of rehabilitation.

“I would argue that more emphasis should be placed on what has happened while the prisoner was in prison. I would like to see the Prisoner Review Board give more weight to how a prisoner has changed their life while in prison because right now it seems like the committed offense really drives decision making,” Maki said.

Kenneth Tupy, chief legal counsel of the PRB, said that while the PRB does look at an inmate’s initial offense, it doesn’t play more of a role than any other factors in the case.

“I would think that all the factors are taken under consideration when the board makes their decision,” Tupy said.

Contact Neil Schneider at nschneider@illinoisitmes.

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