March 28, 1996
Vol. 15, No. 14

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    A question of justice

    Robert Hudson walks slowly now, one large hand wrapped around a cane for support. He looks older than his 64 years after recent quadruple-bypass surgery -- he looks older too, perhaps, from three decades spent in prison. Nearly 30 years ago, he was convicted for what would be the last in a series of crimes, the murder of a gun-and-coin-shop proprietor in Blue Island, Ill., during the course of a botched robbery with two accomplices.

    Now, lawyers and students at the MacArthur Justice Center at the Law School are trying to help Hudson and seven other older convicts in Illinois prisons find their way to freedom. The center, which has had its offices at the University since 1993, has become a leader in representing death-row inmates and in successfully using social-science evidence in addressing legal issues. In this case, students and Law School faculty members at the center are seeking clemency for eight convicts who committed murders at least 20 years ago.

    "There is nothing I can do now about the crime I committed," Hudson said. "You can't put a value on a human life, so I can't repay it, but keeping me here is not going to change anything."

    Clemency hearings have been set before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board for April 3 and 4 for the eight men, who have been in prison for murder for periods ranging from 18 to 28 years.

    The inmates are over 55 years old, have served lengthy prison sentences for crimes they committed as much younger men and, if released, are extremely unlikely to commit another crime, said Locke Bowman, Legal Director of the MacArthur Justice Center and Lecturer in the Law School. The recidivism rate for Illinois prisoners age 55 and older is about 17 percent, he added, compared with 46 percent for all prisoners.

    "I'm mature now -- mentally mature," Hudson said. "Those days are behind me now. I know better. Crime is out of the question. I can do more [for] society out there than in here."

    The eight inmates are among nearly 600 male prisoners who have been caught in a "twilight zone" of public policy in sentencing, Bowman said. The eight were chosen by the clinic students and staff because they have excellent prison records and have strong plans for the time they might be free.

    In the 1960s and 1970s, the prevailing wisdom was that incarcerating convicts would help rehabilitate them for life on the outside. People convicted of crimes then were generally given lengthy, indeterminate sentences, and later hearings before a parole board set the dates of release. Hudson was first given a death sentence for his crime. It was later reversed on appeal and reduced to a 100- to 199-year sentence. He has been eligible for parole since 1977.

    Under the old policy, if prisoners had done well in prison, the parole board was very likely to set them free. Murder sentences, like Hudson's, could extend 200 years or more, but the average murder defendant was paroled after 11.7 years.

    Then, in early 1978, came a move toward determinate sentencing. The public wanted people sentenced to 15 years to serve 15 years, with reductions only for good behavior, Bowman said. After Feb. 1, 1978, those convicted of crimes were given shorter, but more accurately defined, sentences. Their time could be reduced one day for each day of good behavior. People convicted of murder since the 1978 change have served an average of 11 years -- about the same amount of time prisoners convicted of similar crimes served before the change, according to Bowman.

    The same year, the state's parole board was replaced by the prisoner review board, which is charged with reviewing administrative suspensions of good time for prisoners sentenced under the new law. For prisoners sentenced before the change, the prisoner review board assumed the functions of a parole board.

    For a while, the prisoner review board granted parole about as often as the parole board had, Bowman said. But in the mid-1980s, he said, political pressures from the governor and the state's attorney's office drastically cut the number of prisoners awarded parole. In 1983, the board granted parole in 28 percent of the cases it reviewed; in 1984, parole was granted in only 3 percent of the cases. This orientation against parole, still in force, has resulted in older prisoners such as Hudson serving far more than the 11 or so years most convicted murderers have served, despite good prison records.

    "This is an important issue of fairness," Bowman said. "We can debate whether people who commit murder should spend their lives in prison, and we can debate instances when murderers have been released too soon. But I don't think there should be any controversy over treating prisoners similarly. With these older prisoners, that's not happening."

    He pointed out, too, that keeping older convicts in prison is also an inefficient use of tax dollars. "Studies in several states place the cost of maintaining an over-55 prisoner as high as $67,000 a year," he said. "The average cost for all prisoners in Illinois is $16,000."

    Bowman said the MacArthur Justice Center got involved in representing these men after one of his colleagues worked on a similar case. The project moved forward through the efforts of about 10 Law School students who interviewed inmates, wrote the clemency petitions and helped shepherd the project through the legal hoops. "This would not have occurred but for the students' efforts and leadership," Bowman said.

    But what the prisoner review board will decide -- after a decade of saying no -- isn't clear.

    "We have to be realistic," Bowman said. "These are punitive times, and this is an election year. But I am confident that anyone who thinks through the issues -- particularly the fairness issue -- will look at this seriously."

    -- Catherine Behan