Is there room in Illinois for state-sponsored mercy?

click to enlarge Sirhan Sirhan in custody in 1968 after the assassination of Sen. Robert Kennedy during a campaign stop in Los Angeles. Now 77, he was recommended for parole by the California Parole Board. - PHOTO BY KEYSTONE/GETTY IMAGES/TNS
Photo by Keystone/Getty Images/TNS
Sirhan Sirhan in custody in 1968 after the assassination of Sen. Robert Kennedy during a campaign stop in Los Angeles. Now 77, he was recommended for parole by the California Parole Board.

Should government temper its justice with mercy?

I've been pondering that question for at least three decades, ever since I was a young reporter and heard a Texas prosecutor stand before a jury and say, "These aren't halls of mercy; these are halls of justice!"

Justice is rendered when people receive their due, according to the law.

Mercy is a disposition to be kind and forgiving – even if the person has done nothing to deserve it.

Gov. JB Pritzker signed legislation allowing terminally ill or incapacitated inmates to be released early from prison, after their case is assessed by the Illinois Prisoner Review Board. It's a measure that can be best described as merciful. Illinois is the 49th state to enact such legislation, leaving only Iowa without such a provision in its statutes.

"Unfortunately, so many of these people lose their lives, locked away behind bars without being able to spend their last moments with their family," state Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago, told me Aug. 30. "And so many of those folks, especially the people who have been very sick, or are permanently disabled, are people who don't pose any kind of public safety risk to their community."

Guzzardi was the House sponsor of the legislation. I confided to him that I was stunned that it passed. After all, for most of the time that I've covered politics a majority of legislators have had a lock 'em up and throw away the key mindset.

"I do think that the pendulum is swinging back toward a more compassionate and fair justice system," Guzzardi replied. "We have increased penalties, longer sentences, higher incarceration rates, but the data says that it doesn't make our communities any safer. It's extremely disruptive to over-policed and over-incarcerated communities. And it's enormously costly to all levels of government."

One thing is certain: we have too many people in prison. The United States locks up the highest percentage of its citizens of any nation in the world.

Shortly after Pritzker signed the legislation, another act of mercy caught my attention. The California Parole Board voted to recommend the release of Sirhan Sirhan, who murdered U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy 53 years ago. Kennedy had won the Democratic presidential primary in California the day he was shot.

Ultimately, it will be up to Gavin Newsom, the California governor, to decide whether Sirhan becomes a free man. Six of Kennedy's children lobbied the parole board for the assassin's continued incarceration. And two called for his release.

And there is the rub. Family members often equate the worth of the loved one they lost to the severity of punishment given to their killer.

It's a strange phenomenon. Guzzardi calls it uniquely American. Perhaps it is.

Twenty years ago, when Gov. George Ryan contemplated commuting the sentences of everyone on Illinois' death row, families of those murdered made pilgrimages to Springfield and Chicago to speak against it.

I stood outside the Governor's Mansion as family member after family member told me they needed an execution in order for their family to have "closure." I hear similar things today when families demand life without possibility of parole.

But I don't understand how the severity of the punishment someone else receives equates to one's own sense of peace or resolution.

Craig Findley, chairman of the Prisoner Review Board, said the suffering that murder victims' families endure is unfathomable.

"I don't know what they go through because I never experienced a loss like that. A murder is like dropping a stone into a pond. The ripples keep going outward. It can affect future generations as well."

Findley, who has served on the board for 20 years, said victims' families rarely lose interest in the punishment of the offender, even decades after the crime.

The measure signed by Pritzker will for the first time allow the board to use mercy as a criterion for releasing someone from prison, Findley said.

Is that good public policy? Well, it's certainly not a new concept.

I was raised in a home where forgiveness was considered a sign of strength. Unfortunately, many of our elected officials have taken a different view, believing retribution is the key to justice.

But for me, the words of the Hebrew prophet Micah ring loud: "And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

Scott Reeder is a veteran journalist. He works as a reporter in the Springfield area.

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