Reflecting on the Road to Death Penalty Abolition in Illinois, 20 Years After Sweeping Clemency

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It’s been 20 years since then Illinois Gov. George Ryan commuted the sentences of 167 people on death row, marking a major step toward the eventual abolition of the death penalty in the state.

There had already been a moratorium on the state’s death penalty when Gov. Ryan made the sweeping decision in 2003 to change people’s sentences from death to life behind bars without parole.

Renaldo Hudson, director of education at the Illinois Prison Project, was one of the 167 people who had his sentence commuted.

“It meant I had the opportunity for my humanity to be seen, and not just the act that I committed,” said Hudson, who was given a death sentence for a murder he committed when he was 19 years old.

Alice Kim, director of human rights practice at the University of Chicago’s Center for Human Rights, said that while Gov. Ryan’s death row clemency decision paved the way for death penalty abolition in Illinois, it also left the criminal punishment system intact.

“What we have is another insidious form of punishment, which is death by incarceration,” Kim said. “There’s a danger to the stories that are told about people who are on death row. There’s a danger that we only see them one-dimensionally for the crime for which they were convicted of.”

Former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn officially abolished the death penalty in Illinois in 2011.

Hudson and Kim will be speaking at an Illinois Prison Project event, “Life After Death Row: The Road to Death Penalty Abolition and Beyond in Illinois.” The free event is on Friday, Jan. 13, from 6-9 p.m. at the Chicago Athletic Association, 12 S. Michigan Ave. Find event information here.

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January 12, 2023 at 10:47PM

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