By BETH HUNDSDORFER
Capitol News Illinois
One Prisoner Review Board member resigned on Monday, March 28, while another was rejected by the Senate in an evening vote.
Oreal James resigned by way of a letter to Gov. JB Pritzker before going to the Senate for a vote. Hours later, Eleanor Kaye Wilson failed to get the 30 votes needed to confirm her appointment. Wilson received 15 votes to confirm her appointment and 31 votes against while 13 members did not vote.
Monday’s developments represented the latest shakeup on the governor-appointed board that has seen heavy Republican scrutiny in the past year as the Senate repeatedly delayed hearing several of Pritzker’s appointees to the board that determines whether offenders should be released from Illinois Department of Corrections custody and what the terms of their release should be.
The board also makes recommendations on clemency, arbitrates the calculation of good time credit, and reviews cases of those who violate the terms of their parole to decide whether they should be returned to prison. The job pays roughly $90,000 per year.
With James’ resignation and Wilson’s failed confirmation, there are just six members seated to the 15-member board. Of those, three – LeAnn Miller, Jared Bohland and Ken Tupy – still need Senate approval. Tupy and Bohland were recommended by the Senate Executive Appointments Committee unanimously. Miller was also recommended.
Wilson is the second member of the PRB not to win confirmation. Last week, Jeff Mears, a downstate Democrat, was recommended by the Executive Appointments Committee but failed to get confirmed by the full Senate.
Two weeks ago, Pritzker pulled the appointment of Max Cerda, a PRB board member who was convicted of a double murder when he was 16 years old and paroled in 1998. It appeared Cerda would not have enough Senate support for approval.
Pritzker urged Senate action last week on his appointments, noting that the board often oversees parole revocation hearings that require three board members be present to decide whether an offender has violated parole. Often those meetings are held on the same day in multiple areas of the state, and if three members are not present, a violator will automatically be freed and deemed not in violation.
“If we don’t appoint enough members to the PRB, if they’re not approved, the PRB will not be able to have a quorum, and that lack of a quorum wouldn’t therefore be able to keep people in prison who are brought back when they violate their parole conditions. So, this is a huge problem,” Pritzker said last week.
Last year, the PRB held 4,595 revocations hearings across the state. The board is scheduled to hear clemency petitions from April 12 to 15. Also, the board will hear petitions for release under the Joe Coleman Act that went into effect on Jan. 1. The act allows offenders who suffer from a terminal illness or medical incapacitation to file a medical release application.
During the debate into Wilson’s appointment, the opposition stemmed from her voting record while she was on the PRB.
“Miss Wilson voted multiple times to release cop killers, release those who are putting their jobs on the line for us,” said Sen. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro.
Bryant said she counted seven times Wilson voted to release an individual who was incarcerated for killing an officer. She brought up the case of Aaron Hyche, charged with killing State Trooper Layton Davis in 1976. He was given 150 to 300 years. In February 2021, Hyche, who is 71 and has cancer, Parkinson’s disease and dementia, was released on medical parole.
Democrat Mike Simmons, D-Chicago, countered that Wilson was qualified for the position, calling the denial of her appointment based on her voting record “a bit of an overreach.”
“There are many of us in this chamber and the people that we represent that believe in restorative justice, and we believe in redemption,” Simmons said. “And I don’t expect anybody here to unanimously say that they are always going to support restorative justice. But with the Prisoner Review Board, when I look at what this body is charged with doing, I think that the members have done their jobs.”
Wilson was director of DePaul University’s School for New Learning, as well as director of urban programs at Chicago City-Wide College, and is the godmother to the former President Barack Obama’s daughters, Sasha and Malia.
Neither Wilson nor James could be reached for comment Monday.
Under the law, a gubernatorial appointment must be approved within 60 session days. Wilson and James came under scrutiny when their appointments were pulled and then resubmitted by Pritzker to restart the 60-session-day clock in which their appointments could be heard by the committee. This practice is allowed under Senate rules and has been used by previous governors.
James and Wilson were originally appointed to the Prisoner Review Board by Pritzker in April 2019, but those appointments were withdrawn in March 2021 and submitted just days later. Last week, their appointments moved out of the Senate Executive Appointments Committee without a recommendation.
Pritzker said it was a move he had to use as the Senate neglected to act on his appointments, while Republicans countered it was a way to circumvent votes on controversial nominees.
James, a certified mediator focused on restorative justice in public education, was appointed by Pritzker in April 2019. James received his undergraduate and law degree from DePaul College of Law.
“Thank you for the opportunity to serve the State of Illinois while on the Prisoner Review Board,” James stated in his resignation letter to Pritzker. “I took seriously the responsibility to apply the law as it is written in our constitution. These laws direct the board to be fair to all without bias or prejudice. This too, is all you have ever asked of me. It is my hope I have fulfilled this request completely.”
Editor’s note, this story has been updated to include news of Wilson’s rejection.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government that is distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.