When a group of Democratic Illinois state senators joined Republicans in rejecting two of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s nominees to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board last month, it became clear that crime has become such a big issue in this year’s elections it is even driving divisions within the governor’s own political party. How a little-known board became a flashpoint demonstrates how much has changed about politics and crime in just a few years. When Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner took office in 2015 he pledged to cut the state’s prison population by 25 percent over 10 years, a move applauded by Chicago Democrats. Fast forward through Rauner’s administration and most of Pritzker’s. Gun violence in Chicago has spiked along with other major U.S. cities since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic prompting Republicans to call for a more law-and-order approach while opponents point to systemic criminal justice issues as a reason for reform, reports the Chicago Tribune.
For panels such as the Prisoner Review Board, those who have served on it say, that means often nuanced decision-making about releasing men and women from prison is relegated to little more than political talking points. “Board members spend a lot of time studying these cases, reflecting on them to discussing them, having extensive interviews with both the offender and anyone else who wants to comment on the case,” said Craig Findley, a former Republican lawmaker who was chairman of the review board until this year. The interim board members rejected by the Illinois Senate last month were Jeffrey Mears and Eleanor Kaye Wilson. Much of the senators’ professed ire concerned board votes paroling now-elderly men and women who were convicted of high-profile killings. Republicans said Pritzker’s appointees have voted to let some men and women out of prison far too often, and that such votes send a bad message about criminal justice.