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.
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