Kilgore wins national grant for research on criminal-justice reform

Kilgore wins national grant for research on criminal-justice reform

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URBANA — James Kilgore, whose hiring at the University of Illinois sparked a fierce debate over the job rights of ex-felons, has won a national grant to pursue his research on criminal justice reform.

Kilgore was awarded the Open Society Foundation Soros Justice Fellowship for 2017-18. The amount wasn't disclosed, but awards can range from $40,000 to $110,000 for projects lasting 12 to 18 months. The fellowships, awarded since 1997, went to attorneys, advocates, artists, writers and scholars dedicated to a more humane criminal justice system in the United States, according to the foundation, which was founded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

Kilgore, a research scholar with the UI's Center for African Studies, will use the grant to develop more effective and less punitive policies on the use of electronic monitors for prisoners and parolees, the foundation said.

The fellowship builds on work Kilgore has done with the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center for the past three years, through a grant from the Media Democracy Fund.

He has been researching the topic since he spent a year with a monitor as a condition of his own parole in 2009-10.

Kilgore served more than six years in prison for his role in a 1975 bank robbery by the radical Symbionese Liberation Army in which a bank customer was killed. Kilgore was one of the armed robbers but did not shoot the victim.

He later fled to Africa, living under an assumed name until his extradition to the U.S. in 2002. He was convicted of murder and served six years in a California prison before joining his wife, UI history Professor Teresa Barnes, in Champaign, where he has been active in social-justice groups and prison reform efforts.

He was also hired as a nontenured adjunct lecturer by the UI, but was told in 2014 that his contract would not be renewed after a series of articles in The News-Gazette detailing his past. After protests from his colleagues and others, the campus appointed a committee to review his status. The panel recommended that he be reinstated, and when trustees could not reach a consensus, he was free to be rehired.

Through this past May, he was still an adjunct lecturer in international studies and an academic hourly research scholar in the Center for African Studies, according to the UI.

His case prompted concerns about academic freedom on campus but also criticism from state legislators and others about the use of state funds to hire someone they viewed as a former terrorist.

Kilgore declined to comment for this story. He has said publicly that he is "ashamed" of his past, telling trustees in 2014 that his acts were "utterly destructive to innocent members of the community and damaging to my family, loved ones and all those who campaigned for social justice and peace."

"The Soros Justice Fellowship program is built on a steadfast belief in second chances — that people cannot and should not be defined over the course of a lifetime for decisions they made in their youth," said Adam Culbreath, who manages the fellowship program at the Open Society Foundations, in an email to The News-Gazette. "Mr. Kilgore has paid his debt to society, renounced violence, and has been an active and influential advocate and teacher in the years since his release. We believe in his work, and support his contributions to making our criminal justice system fairer, more effective and more just for all who encounter it."

Brian Dolinar, director of the Independent Media Center, said the new fellowship is timely. More jurisdictions are moving toward the use of electronic monitors as a humane way to move people out of prisons, but those efforts sometimes include "draconian conditions of house arrest," he said.

"James has been spearheading this project for several years, interviewing individuals from Michigan to California to New York to Texas who have been on electronic monitors, the severity and restrictiveness of these devices, and the way they really rule people's lives," Dolinar said.

Kilgore will focus on two areas where the use of monitors is growing — for juvenile offenders and those involved in immigration or deportation hearings, Dolinar said.

Cook County is one of the largest systems to use electronic monitors for juveniles, and Kilgore will talk to prison officials about the regulations and standards used, as well as the youths about their actual experiences wearing the monitors, Dolinar said.

One question involves the regulation of data collected through GPS tracking of youths, which gives police "a virtual map of where all these youths are traveling," Dolinar said. "Where is that data going? How it is being used? Those are serious questions."

Kilgore's fellowship will lead a nationwide network to develop a set of guidelines for electronic monitoring that puts the rights of those being monitored front and center, Dolinar said.

The project is sponsored by the Independent Media Center, which has supported criminal-justice reform campaigns for 10 years, and the Center for Media Justice in Oakland, Calif., a racial-justice organizing hub that champions the media and technology rights of communities of color and the poor. The two organizations collaborate through the Media Action Grassroots Network.

Kilgore is also a co-director of FirstFollowers, a local program run by former prisoners to help people re-enter the community after jail; and as a founding member of the "Build Programs, Not Jails" movement, which fought the expansion of the Champaign County Jail. He has also authored five books, including "Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People's Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time."

He played a key role in the Independent Media Center's work in the 2014-15 campaign for Prison Phone Justice, which worked to pass state legislation to lower the cost of prison phone calls and allow video calls. The latter bill is awaiting the governor's signature, Dolinar said. The campaign also lobbied for new federal regulations that capped the cost of prison phone calls, but those were recently overturned by the Trump administration, he said. That decision has been challenged in the courts.

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jparks wrote on July 28, 2017 at 8:07 am

My question wasn't answered before the last Kilgore article was removed so I will ask it again.

James Kilgore was convicted of being an accessory to murder.  If the statute of limitations had not run out while Kilgore was a fugitive from justice, he would have been eligible for the death penalty in California where the crime was committed.

Question: If this crime (punishable by the death penalty) isn't serious enough to prevent employment by the University of Illinois, what crime is serious enough?

wykhb wrote on August 03, 2017 at 11:08 pm

The people running the university are regularly caught breaking the law, yet none actually are ever indicted or fired, even when forced to leave it's with a very golden pillow to soothe their gilded bottoms, so what's not to understand about the place?

BruckJr wrote on July 28, 2017 at 2:07 pm

Kilgore and Sorros - two peas in a pod.

Pray4Peace wrote on July 28, 2017 at 10:07 pm

I sincerely appreciate Mr. Soros for his Justice Fellowships and Mr. Kilgore for his continued efforts that improve criminal justice.  Considering the bureaucracy that must be discouraging work at times.  Prisons must aim for the best outcome for each person.  That will have a positive impact on all of society. 

former_illinois_alma wrote on July 29, 2017 at 3:07 pm

Only thing keeping someone from employment at the university is speaking the truth to the wrong tenured faculty and administrators.

former_illinois_alma wrote on July 29, 2017 at 3:07 pm

Only thing keeping someone from employment at the university is speaking the truth to the wrong tenured faculty and administrators.

CallSaul wrote on August 01, 2017 at 6:08 pm

This story illustrates how the criminal justice system can and should be used to both hold people accountable for past criminal action and also open doors to becoming a contributing member of society.