Short of comprehensive and retroactive legislative action, clemency is the only mechanism to address Illinois’ aging prison population. Executive clemency rests solely with the Governor, who has the power to pardon a conviction or commute a sentence. Although the Prisoner Review Board reviews clemency petitions, Illinois’ governor has the power to commute a sentence irrespective of the Board’s recommendation. Clemency petitions are written applications that include detailed criminal history information, a personal narrative, and the reasons for seeking clemency. A public hearing is held on every petition.
Clemency is grossly underused in Illinois, especially for commutations. Only about 1,200 clemency petitions--for commutation and pardon--are filed each year, and only one or two commutations have been awarded annually. Most of those petitions are rather filed on behalf of people in the community to seek to clear their record of old convictions. Even taking a reduced life expectancy into account and using the most conservative estimates, commuting the sentence of a 55 year old would save Illinois between $526,220 and $1,316,550 per incarcerated person.
Despite their infrequent use, clemency petitions provide a unique opportunity not only to seek release on behalf of an individual aging person, but to repeatedly educate the Governor’s office about the high costs and negligible benefits of incarcerating an aging population. Clemency applications create avenues for repeated written advocacy through the petitions themselves, as well as a stage to present testimony from social scientists, policy makers, medical professionals, and criminologists.