Gov. JB Pritzker defends denials of medical release requests from dying and disabled prisoners

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Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker defended the number of dying and disabled prisoners released under a landmark law that went into effect early last year at a news conference Thursday.

“The Coleman Act is, in fact, being carried out as it should be,” Pritzker told reporters in response to an Injustice Watch and WBEZ investigation, which found only 52 prisoners had been granted release under the law — far below the hundreds of terminally ill and incapacitated prisoners advocates say could have been released by now.

The Prisoner Review Board — a state body whose members are appointed by Pritzker — denied nearly two-thirds of requests from ailing prisoners made under the law, known as the Joe Coleman Medical Release Act, as of mid-August.

Pritzker acknowledged some medical release applicants “really can’t function” and are unlikely to commit another crime if released. But “just because the person is ill, doesn’t mean that there aren’t factors that are being considered and need to be considered about a case and whether somebody should be released or not,” he said.

In order to have their case heard by the board, medical release applicants must first be found by medical staff in the Illinois Department of Corrections to have less than 18 months to live or to need help with more than one activity of daily living, such as eating or bathing. At least 146 people have been found qualified since last year, but the board has denied 94 of those requests.

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“I’ve encouraged the Prisoner Review Board to do the right thing, to encourage release wherever it’s appropriate,” Pritzker said. “But we’re not just going to push everybody out the door just because there’s somebody who complains that we haven’t done it the way they would like it done.”

But that outlook undermines the intent behind the Coleman Act, said Jennifer Soble, the act’s main author and executive director of the Illinois Prison Project, a nonprofit legal group in Chicago that’s represented dozens of medical release applicants.

“The eligibility conditions are extremely strict and narrowly tailored to apply to only the sickest and most expensive people in the prison healthcare system,” she said. “With that in mind, almost every eligible person should be released if we are to realize the Coleman Act’s purpose.”

In recent years, the Prisoner Review Board has become mired in the politics of criminal justice reform, as Republicans and some Senate Democrats have blocked several of Pritzker’s nominees to the board.

Injustice Watch and WBEZ found the board’s decisions in medical release cases often depend on which of the board’s dozen members are assigned to the three-person panel that hears each case. Republicans hold five seats on the board, but they’ve voted in more medical release cases than the board’s six Democrats and one independent — and they are also more likely to deny release.

But Pritzker expressed confidence Thursday that board members “are people who care deeply about criminal justice reform (and) who care deeply about making sure that we’re being fair to prisoners — and to the community in which we’re releasing people.”

In a statement sent in response to follow-up questions, Pritzker’s spokesperson said the governor was expressing “frustration with the characterization that progress in the right direction isn’t enough.” But she also said “there are undoubtedly improvements that should be discussed among stakeholders and the General Assembly as the law continues to be implemented.”

WBEZ reporter Alex Degman contributed reporting.

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