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What's next for Illinois' parole board? Former Shawnee Correctional Center employee booted from panel

By Beth Hundsdorfer
Capitol News Illinois
updated: 4/10/2022 11:59 AM

In a rare move earlier this week, the state Senate rejected a gubernatorial appointee to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board that passed through its Executive Appointment Committee with a recommendation.

The Senate vote may be the beginning salvo in the battle of the remaining Prisoner Review Board appointments and other criminal justice reform measures. For Pritzker's review board appointees awaiting Senate confirmation, the clock is ticking. The five pending appointments must be approved by the Senate by close of business on Monday or they are automatically approved.

For Jeff Mears, it's over.

Mears, a former painter for the Shawnee Correctional Center in Vienna, did not get the required 30 votes in the Senate to keep his job at the Illinois Prisoner Review Board -- the board that decides whether offenders are released from prison and under what conditions.

Before the vote, Mears passed through the Executive Appointment Committee on Tuesday and received a recommendation. Later that day, the Senate Democrats split, with 22 voting yes and 18 Democrats not voting. Sen. Patrick Joyce, D-Essex, joined the 18 GOP members and voted no. Mears fell eight votes short of being approved and lost his spot.

"It's surprising that anybody would vote him down, that people wouldn't show up to vote," Pritzker said Wednesday at a press event. "What Republicans are trying to do is to essentially break down a function of government. They want to do away with it just like during the Rauner years. So much was done to break down the functions of government, the agencies of government. This is not right."

Pritzker said it bothers him that the Democrats didn't vote to approve Mears.

"It bothers me that they are listening to the Republican rhetoric. It's Facebook fakery about these folks who are nominated. These are people who have served and served well and they deserve to be approved," he said.

Mears was a painter for more than 20 years at Shawnee Correctional Center. But wardens there had Mears serve as a hostage negotiations coordinator and member of the elite negotiations team and statewide audit review team.

Under the law, members of the board must have at least five years of actual experience in the fields of penology, corrections work, law enforcement, sociology, law, education, social work, medicine, psychology, other behavioral sciences, or some combination of those.

The law also says no more than eight PRB members may be members of the same political party. Mears is a Democrat from Vienna, who also served as the Johnson County Board chairman and was the frontman for a rock band called "Plain Strange" and "Cache River Band."

Mears did not return a call for comment.

Gamesmanship or legal function?

Scrutiny regarding the PRB appointments began last year after Pritzker appointed, then pulled, then reappointed the same candidates. Republicans called the process a "scandal."

But Pritzker countered that it was a legal and necessary way to keep his appointees in place and blamed Senate inaction for creating the necessity for pulling appointments to keep the parole board functioning.

"That's a legal function that's been around for a quite long time. It happens when the state Senate doesn't take up the nominations I have put forward," Pritzker said.

Currently, there are eight members on the 15-member board. Of those, five need Senate approval.

Mears received his appointment in March 2021, replacing another southern Illinois Democrat, Wayne Dunn, a former high school guidance counselor then administrator and counselor at the Illinois Youth Center in Harrisburg.

Dunn was not reappointed by Pritzker.

"It was the crown jewel of my career," Dunn said. "I was proud of what I did there."

In May 2021, Mears was driving to Springfield to appear before the Senate committee when he received a call that his appointment had been pulled by Pritzker.

Mears was one of five PRB members who had their appointments withdrawn and resubmitted by Pritzker. Oreal James and Eleanor Kaye Wilson were appointed 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 committee without a recommendation. The Senate must vote on their appointments by Monday or they will automatically be approved.

PRB members Ken Tupy, Jared Bohland and LeAnn Miller were recommended by the committee. Tupy and Bohland were approved unanimously. The Senate did not take up those appointees, but their nominations are not set to take effect automatically this week.

PRB members Aurthur Mae Perkins and Joseph Ruggiero were also appointed by Pritzker in March 2019, but those appointments were withdrawn in March 2021 and submitted again days later. Earlier this month, Pritzker pulled the nominations for Perkins and Ruggiero for a second time. The two, both appointed to the board by Republican former Gov. Bruce Rauner, have served on the board for nearly three years without a Senate confirmation. Their names were not resubmitted.

Pritzker also pulled the appointment of PRB member Max Cerda, who was convicted of a double murder when he was 16 years old. Cerda received parole in 1998. He was 35 years old when he was released and began working with ex-offenders in Chicago to help them transition to life outside of prison.

Mears replaced another southern Illinois Democrat, Wayne Dunn, a former high school guidance counselor then administrator and counselor at the Illinois Youth Center in Harrisburg.

Dunn was not reappointed by Pritzker.

As part of their job, PRB members attend hearings around the state throughout the week and may have to travel to Springfield or Chicago for the bigger hearings. According to the minutes, they may hear three to five cases at each hearing. It also takes time to prepare for those hearings, reading files, verifying claims, maybe conducting interviews. The salary for the position is roughly $90,000.

According to Parole Illinois, an advocacy group, Dunn voted in 191 cases and ruled in favor of offenders nearly 22% of the time. Mears voted in favor of offenders about 28% of the time, according to the Republicans.

Those favorable offender numbers are less than other appointees who still face a Senate confirmation.

Wilson and James both rule in favor of offenders between 43% and 45% of the time. Neither received recommendations from the Senate committee before being passed along to the full Senate for a vote.

A better way?

The 2018 research study conducted by Parole Illinois found that there should be changes to the process.

"The way the board members are appointed and approved should be amended to increase the institutional independence," the study stated.

Appointments and removal are up to the governor with the consent of the Senate. This, the study found, creates an institutional structure where board members may be removed as easily as they are appointed.

The task of the PRB is passing judgment on people who have done "terrible things," Pritzker said, including those convicted of murdering police and children.

One controversial case involving most of the pending appointees pertained to a mother convicted in the deaths of her two newborn daughters.

Paula Sims, of Alton, admitted that she killed her newborn daughters, Heather in 1989 and Loralei in 1986, and nearly killed her only surviving child, a son. She contended that she suffered from postpartum psychosis.

Sims avoided the death penalty and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Pritzker commuted Sims' sentence to life with the possibility of parole in March 2021. Prisoner Review Board minutes from Sims' hearing on Oct. 28, 2020, indicate the only opposition was from Madison County State's Attorney Tom Haine.

Sims had one surviving child, a son named Randall, who was raised by his father, Robert. Robert and Paula Sims had divorced. In 2006, Robert Sims lodged his opposition to his former wife's release. Nine years later, Robert, 62, and Randall, 27, died in a fiery crash in Mississippi.

Sims was paroled in October 2021.