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It’s time to consider prison sentence modification for older inmates

Updated: November 7, 2013 6:37AM

I write in support of the Sun-Times Sept. 5 editorial with regard to House Bill 3668, which would enable some older prison inmates to get hearings for release. I work with a coalition, Project I-11, focused on criminal justice and prison issues. We are named for the section of the Illinois constitution that sets the goal for correctional facilities: “to return individuals to useful citizenship.”

HB 3668, sponsored by state Reps. Art Turner (D-Chicago) and Chris Welch (D-Hillside), would apply only to prisoners who have reached age 50 and served 25 consecutive years. This population is the least likely to re-offend. An eligible prisoner would apply to the Prison Review Board (PRB) for sentence modification, and the PRB would have to determine that this individual is not any kind of threat and has a clear re-entry plan. Victims’ families would be notified whenever a person applies for sentence modification.

Many elderly prisoners are sick, and prisoners generally show signs of being 10 years older than their actual age. In Pennsylvania, a study concluded that people over 50 who had served at least 25 years had a 2 percent recidivism rate. None of these offenses was for violent crimes.

Illinois prisons are overcrowded, with an increase from 27,000 to 49,000 in two decades. Among people over 50, the increase has been from 1,030 to 7,162. If this trend continues, the state will need three geriatric prisons within the next 20 years. Among people over 50 who have served 25 years, the increase was also dramatic: from 32 to 900.

If just one of 10 eligible people were released, the DOC budget would see a reduced cost of $7.5 million in one year. Given the relatively small number of eligible people who would be approved for sentence reduction, it would be easy to track their progress.

In the past 15 years, I have come to know many men and women imprisoned in Illinois. Not everyone I know is reformed but some surely are. Keeping elderly, rehabilitated people in prison is unnecessary, costly, and in violation of our constitutional requirement to return prisoners to useful citizenship.

Bill Ryan, Westchester

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