BLOOMINGTON - Mike and Sandy Zogg will never be satisfied with the plea bargain reached between prosecutors and the man who killed their pregnant 19-year-old daughter. | Beaman sees hope for elderly inmates

Fifty years in prison for two lives is not justice, say the parents of Jodi McGrew, who was bludgeoned with a rock and sexually assaulted in October by her brother-in-law, Jason Marksteiner.

The Zoggs carry protest signs and talk to passersby outside the McLean County Law and Justice Center most Wednesdays to draw attention to the April plea agreement that sent the 21-year-old LeRoy man to prison for 50 years.

Recently, Illinois lawmakers, for the third straight year, defeated a proposal that would allow inmates who are at least 50 years old who have served at least 25 consecutive years to petition the state Prisoner Review Board for release. The newest version of the bill was defeated on an 83-to-32 vote in the House.

Area representatives Dan Brady, Keith Sommer and Bill Mitchell, all Republicans, voted against the bill that was sponsored by State Rep. Arthur Turner, D-Chicago, and would have allowed a sentence adjustment for inmates other than those with a death sentence

While the bill was defeated, it points out a simple truth - that the graying of the nation's prison population has Illinois and other states looking at what to do with elderly inmates whose care grows more expensive and complicated with each passing year.

The thought that a convicted murderer like Marksteiner could apply for release from prison after he is 50 and has served 25 years of his sentence has added to the sleepless nights experienced by the Zoggs.

"A man kills and rapes someone and gets out in 25 years? I don't think so," said Mike Zogg on a recent Wednesday. "He can get out in 25 years if I get my daughter back in 25 years."

Numbers on the rise

The number of prisoners age 55 and older increased 33 percent between 2000 and 2005, outpacing the 9 percent overall growth rate in state and federal prisons, according to U.S. Justice Department's most recent statistics.

Currently, 36 states offer programs allowing dying and infirm inmates to be released.

In Illinois, 388 of the state's 45,500 inmates would be eligible for release under an early-release program, according to Illinois Department of Corrections estimates.

Illinois inmate William Heirens, 80, is believed to be the world's longest serving prisoner. He has been behind bars for 63 years for the 1946 murders of a young girl and two women. Confined most of the time to a wheelchair, he recently asked state prison officials to consider releasing him so he could visit his parents' graves.

The John Howard Association, a Chicago-based prison reform advocacy group, supports the idea of releasing inmates after they've served more than two decades in jail.

"It's a sensible solution. We have a burgeoning prison population that will be unmanageable at some point," said Shaena Fazal, director of the association's long term prisoner policy project.

Inmates sentenced to more than 20 years are sent to maximum security facilities where program opportunities are limited, said Fazal, adding, "That leaves a lot of these guys just warehoused."

Paying debts in full

But the majority of the state's lawmakers and many victims' advocates argue that reducing prison populations should not come at the expense of public safety and victims' rights. When the elderly prisoner bill was reintroduced in December, victims' right groups renewed their strong objections to the proposal.

Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, founder of illinoisvictims.org, an internet-based advocacy organization, mobilized supporters to defeat Turner's bill. For Bishop-Jenkins, who lost three family members to violence in 1990, elderly release legislation harms victims who are trying to heal and fails to address the most pressing issues in Illinois prisons: the rising numbers of non-violent offenders who are being incarcerated.

"Victims walk away from a sentencing and think it's permanent. Re-opening a case is just too hard on victims," said Bishop Jenkins.

Changes in sentencing laws that set specific terms for offenses and more aggressive enforcement of drug laws contributed to a 138 percent increase in the state's prison population between 1988 and 1998, according to state data.

Instead of releasing elderly prisoners under the terms of Turner's House Bill 45, Bishop-Jenkins suggested an internal transfer makes more sense for long-term inmates who have been rehabilitated. At another prison, they could have work opportunities. She also does not oppose early release possibilities for some terminally ill prisoners.

Local support lacking

Prosecutors responsible for sending people to prison also oppose the idea. Inmates who have spent more than two decades behind bars are deserving of their full sentence, said McLean County State's Attorney Bill Yoder.

"The criminals we are talking about, serving this type of sentence are murderers, rapists and violent thugs of the worst sort. They were sentenced to lengthy prison sentences because they were a serious threat to innocent, law abiding people and they were not fit to live in a free society," said Yoder.

Prisoners who feel they should be released early can ask the governor to commute their sentence, noted Yoder. Victims are allowed to testify at commutation hearings.

Rep. Dan Brady agreed with lawmakers who opposed the review of a sentence based upon a person's age, especially when that age is 50.

"I don't consider 50 to be elderly," said Brady.

Future efforts to breathe life into the proposal will be difficult, added the Bloomington Republican.

"This will be difficult for those of us who are pro-law enforcement," he said.

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