In 2018, at a maximum-security prison an hour outside of Chicago, a debate team gathered on a stage to argue the merits of reinstating parole in Illinois. Under current law — Illinois abolished discretionary parole in 1978 for all future offenders — none of the 14 members of the Stateville Correctional Center debate team would ever get to appear before a parole board.
Their coach, Katrina Burlet, who also led a team at an evangelical liberal arts college, invited the 177 members of the Illinois General Assembly to attend the debate. Around twenty of the lawmakers showed up in the prison’s theater.
Raul Dorado, who was 20 years into a life sentence, told the politicians that he and the other men on the debate team were imprisoned between the ages of 16 and 26. “There is a reason for this,” he said. “People simply age out of crime.”
The Bureau of Justice Statistics and countless studies show that Mr. Dorado was right about this. Arrest rates for both violent and nonviolent crimes generally peak when people are in their late teens and early 20s, and from there criminal behavior drops steadily. Mr. Dorado said that without parole he and his teammates were likely to die in prison. Half of them had been sentenced to life. Among the others, the shortest sentence was 40 years.
Oscar Parham, whose geniality had earned him the nickname Smiley, said that the most severe punishments should be restricted to the most egregious offenders, to the rare mass murderer or serial killer. Yet in prisons across the country, more than 200,000 people are serving life or virtual life sentences of 50 years or more.
“Was I a monster who threatened the very fabric of society like the natural-life sentence suggests?” he asked. Mr. Parham was a teenager in a gang when a friend killed two people during a drug deal. He was convicted of the double murder under the legal theory of “accountability,” which allows prosecutors to charge accomplices or associates as if they committed the actual offense. “Just as prisoners must change and reform, so must the system,” Mr. Parham said.
Weeks after the public debate, the prison disbanded the Stateville team. The coach was barred from entering any state prison in Illinois. One explanation came from the head of the Illinois Department of Corrections at the time, who said the coach didn’t follow “safety and security practices.”
But the team had already captured the attention of several of the visiting legislators. The debaters drafted a bill that would entitle everyone in prison in Illinois to a parole review. With supporters on the outside, five members of the team went on to form a group called Parole Illinois. They raised money and hired an organizer. Now Illinois lawmakers have an opportunity to pass a parole reform bill that is the result of the Stateville debate team’s years of work.