Howard Keller would like to get out of Joliet Prison someday.
If he did get out, he’d like to go back to Chicago and buy a pair of hair clippers. Then he’d open his own barber shop. He’d like to tell folks what he’s learned about alcohol abuse and addiction. And if he only got the chance, he’d like to say he’s sorry and ask for the opportunity to start again.
“I did something wrong,” Keller would say, “and I’ve made all the efforts I can to change my life. Can you give me a second chance?”
But it’s unlikely any of that will happen. Keller is 43 years old. He has another 34 years on his 55-year prison sentence. And according to the state of Illinois, it doesn’t matter how much Keller has changed since he shot and killed a man in a doorway outside a liquor store in 2000.
It doesn’t matter that he got his barber’s license, tutors people preparing to take the GED, and is working on a seminary degree. It doesn’t matter that he’s been rehabilitated and longs for restoration in his community.
There is no possibility of parole.
In 1978—the year Keller was born—Illinois became the second state in the nation to abolish its discretionary parole system. The reasons why Illinois and eventually a total of 16 states eliminated the possibility of conditional early release are complicated. Some argued that fixed sentences are more of a deterrent on crime. Emerging research in the late 1970s also seemed to indicate the differences between those who did and who didn’t get parole were arbitrary or, worse, discriminatory, and the system did not seem to have any good tools for evaluating an individual’s rehabilitation.
Abolishing parole, many reasoned, would lead to fixed, shorter sentences, reduce crime, and avoid discriminatory parole boards.
It didn’t quite work out that way. Shorter sentences did not become the norm in Illinois. Abolishing parole does not seem to have had any demonstrated effect on deterring crime. And no better system of assessing rehabilitation emerged.
That’s why Keller and other Christians in Illinois are advocating for SB2333, a senate bill that would bring back the possibility of parole. If the bill passes, those who have served more than 20 years in prison could go before a state board for review.
“The whole foundation of the Christian faith is mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration, and that is at the heart of what the parole system is,” Keller told CT from prison, mentioning Ephesians 2:4–8. “It’s recognition that people can change and lives can be transformed. And so why not give a person the opportunity to show that he or she has been restored?”
When Katrina Burlet started volunteering as a debate coach at Stateville Correctional Center, a men’s maximum-security prison, she didn’t know that Illinois offered no possibility of parole. Many people just assume that parole happens, since the idea, which dates back to the Middle Ages, is so common. It shocked her to find out from her debate team that there was no parole.
A Wheaton College grad who hoped to minister to incarcerated people through a debate program in the prisons, Burlet said she had already started to have questions about the criminal justice system in America.
“There is no point in which the Bible discusses imprisonment as a righteous or godly response to wrongdoing,” she said. “This ought to mean something to contemporary Christians.”
Using her skills, in 2018 Burlet arranged to have incarcerated people debate the best ways to reform parole. The event was attended by state legislators, prison reform activists, and church leaders.
Weeks later, the Illinois Department of Corrections decided to disband the debate team and ban Burlet from working in the prison, citing “safety and security” issues. But the event laid the foundation for a grassroots movement.
Five members of the team, including Keller, went on to form Parole Illinois, a coalition of incarcerated people and their allies. Using the groundwork laid by the 2018 debate, they composed the first draft of the proposed legislation that is now SB2333.
“At someone’s worst moment, you cannot know who God may grow them into, and therefore you cannot throw them away forever,” Burlet said. “That’s what this bill is about.”
Keller says faith has been the “number one driver” of his part in the reform effort. Burlet feels the same way.
They have received support on the outside from people like Krista Dutt, senior pastor at The Dwelling Place, a Brethren in Christ church where most, if not all, members of the congregation have a family member who is incarcerated.
Chance the Rapper, a Chicago Christian who is becoming well known for speaking out about issues of faith and urban renewal, has also been an advocate. Lobbying for the bill, he said the costs associated with warehousing prisoners should grab legislators’ attention, but the strongest argument for parole is just the belief that people can change.
“It does not guarantee release,” Chance said. “What it does is give those facing long-term sentences … an opportunity to prove they are worthy of a second chance.”
The bill did not come up for a vote in 2021, however. According to The New York Times, it was kept off the floor in part by Democratic State Senator John Connor, a former prosecutor and the chair of the Senate Criminal Law Committee. Connor said he fears the possibility of a sex offender receiving parole and going on to commit another crime.
The bill’s sponsor in the Illinois General Assembly is State Representative Carol Ammons. The bill’s sponsor in the Senate, Celina Villanueva, said the state’s prison system is not supposed to lock people away forever.
“Our corrections system is meant to rehabilitate people,” she said. “There are people who spend their time behind bars trying to better themselves, and the systems need to recognize that.”
If the bill passes, it would potentially impact 5,000 people who are expected to die in Illinois prisons without any review of whether it’s in the state’s interest to keep incarcerating them, according to Parole Illinois estimates.
One of those people would be Keller. The bill wouldn’t automatically get him out of Joliet and put him on a bus back to Chicago, where he could start shopping for a pair of clippers at a beauty supply store.
But it would let him ask.
“People with sentences like mine don’t even get that opportunity to ask society for forgiveness,” Keller said. “At the very least, the individual should have a chance to ask.”
Kathryn Watson is a reporter from New York City.
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