Restore Justice Policy Manager James Swansey prepared the following testimony for House Bill 1064. However, he ultimately did not need to deliver the testimony. The Illinois General Assembly passed House Bill 1064 in January 2023, sending it to Governor JB Pritzker.
Thank you to the Chair and members of the committee for the opportunity to speak today. My name is James Swansey and I am here today in support of HB1064, which would abolish life without parole (LWOP) sentences for most children and young adults. At 17, I was sentenced to LWOP plus an additional 30 years for a horrible decision I made. While in prison, I found that I was not my worst mistake. I wanted to become a better individual. This happened through natural interaction with correctional staff and with other incarcerated people by making sure I treated people the way I wanted to be treated. I decided that when I had the chance I would make the most of it and be a productive citizen by doing all that I can for the community.
In 2012, the United States Supreme Court decision Miller v. Alabama made it unconstitutional for children 17 or younger to receive mandatory LWOP. The Illinois Supreme Court then ruled that Miller applied retroactively, requiring resentencing for a number of people in prison. This ruling gave me and 80 or so other people in Illinois a second chance to live our first life. These same people are now doing amazing things with the opportunity they were given. After being resentenced and ultimately serving 28 years, I was released a little over two years ago.
Today, I stand before you as the face and voice of long-term incarceration. In our system today, the punishment is going to prison. It should not be to die in prison. When remorse for the crime committed has been demonstrated, the path to healing, the path to rehabilitation, and the path to re-entering society can and will begin. Returning people to useful citizenship should always be the goal.
I am now a Policy Manager with Restore Justice where I am doing everything I can to take advantage of my second chance. I teach people about the challenges faced with issues such as the one I am here in support of today. I also mentor today’s youth by speaking about my past mistakes; I share how it feels to be stuck inside a cell no bigger than the average bathroom, with no future in sight because of decisions I made when I was a child.
HB1064 is a prospective-only bill and will not be retroactive. It simply ensures that after 40 years individuals have a limited opportunity to be considered for parole.
People should not be defined for the rest of their lives by one mistake. Science shows the brain continues to develop into the late 20s, and everyone grows and changes, just like I did. Everyone should have the opportunity to be considered for release. This would reward people for making the right decisions throughout their incarcerated lives, no matter what the charge, and give them hope. I am an example and not the exception. There are more individuals just like myself who have become better overall people because they have grown and made a conscious decision to do so.
If you believe that children and young people are capable of changing and maturing then I ask that you give someone that chance and vote yes on HB 1064. It is time to align Illinois with the other 25 states, plus Washington DC, who have already abolished life sentences for children and young adults. Thank you.