Why are they still in prison?
Lawsuit challenges IDOC on inmate risk evaluations
Harrison Chancy has spent the last 38 years behind bars for a murder and armed robbery that took place in 1977. Now age 57, he still maintains he didn’t commit those crimes, and despite evidence that he would pose no criminal threat if released, he has been denied parole 14 times since 1991. Although he wasn’t sentenced to life, he may never get out of prison.
Chancy is one of Illinois’ 138 remaining “C-number” inmates who were given indefinite or “indeterminate” sentences under a law that no longer exists. Now, Chancy and another C-number inmate are suing the Illinois Department of Corrections and the Illinois Prisoner Review Board in Sangamon County court for not evaluating them with a standardized benchmark that was supposed to be implemented in 2013.
The lawsuit was originally filed in Cook County in May 2015, but it was transferred to Sangamon County earlier this year at the agencies’ request.
Prior to 1978, Illinois used an “indeterminate” sentencing scheme under which those convicted would receive a range of possible years in prison. Those inmates, who were given an identification number that begins with C, go before the Prisoner Review Board periodically for a vote on whether they will receive parole.
In 2009, Illinois passed a law requiring the Department of Corrections to use a standardized risk assessment tool for evaluating each inmate’s likelihood of reoffending and fitness for parole. The tool was supposed to be in use by January 2013, and IDOC has even purchased the necessary materials but hasn’t actually put them into use.
Chancy and fellow C-number inmate Joseph Hurst, 71, have both been denied parole many times, both before and after the assessment tool was supposed to be in use. They sued IDOC on the theory that the assessment tool would have shown them to be good candidates for parole. Indeed, both men’s requests for parole seem to support the notion that they aren’t likely to commit crimes.
Chancy, who still denies having committed any crime, has served decades longer than others sentenced for the same crimes under the pre-1978 system. He has accumulated 16 years’ worth of good conduct credit and no citations for bad behavior, according to the lawsuit. Chancy’s parole request included a letter from a 25-year IDOC officer stating that if he had a neighbor who was a paroled inmate, he would hope it was Chancy. It was the only letter of recommendation that officer had ever written on behalf of an inmate.
Hurst was 23 when he shot at two patrol officers during a traffic stop on May 23, 1967, killing one and wounding the other. He has been behind bars since July 18, 1969 – two days before the moon landing. Since then, he has converted to Islam and expressed remorse for his crimes, according to the lawsuit. Hurst, who has Parkinson’s disease and several other medical conditions, teaches courses on English, math and anatomy for other prisoners. The lawsuit says he hasn’t received a single disciplinary ticket in the past 17 years, and despite serving 20 years more than the average for murder convictions under the pre-1978 sentencing system, he has been denied parole more than 30 times.
IDOC and PRB filed a response to the lawsuit which denied most of the factual allegations, saying the agencies “deny that plaintiffs are entitled to any of the relief sought.”
IDOC assistant director Gladyse Taylor said during her deposition that her agency hasn’t implemented the risk assessment tool because of a lack of funding to hire enough qualified staff to conduct inmate interviews. She said IDOC had piloted the program with seven offenders, but the interviewers felt the program was “above their scope.” She explained that the interviewers felt they couldn’t effectively conduct the interviews and still get their other tasks completed. At the time of Taylor’s deposition on July 27, IDOC had 300 counselors, but Taylor said the agency needs 400.
On April 15, Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Schmidt denied a preliminary injunction request filed on behalf of Hurst and Chancy by David Shapiro, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law. Shapiro reasoned that, because many of the C-number inmates are close to death, time is limited for the state to begin complying with the law.
Schmidt rejected that notion, writing that the “plaintiffs have failed to prove they will suffer irreparable harm without a preliminary injunction.” He said many factors go into decisions on parole.
“To claim a risk assessment would have swayed the vote is pure speculation,” Schmidt said.
Shapiro says IDOC asserted that C-number inmates will be evaluated with the tool for parole hearings starting immediately or almost immediately. He says Hurst and Chancy will continue to pursue the case, although no new hearing has been scheduled.
Contact Patrick Yeagle at email@example.com.