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Top cop, prosecutor want to keep gun felons out of boot camp

Updated: November 6, 2013 6:07AM

Damarcus Dotson was caught with a loaded .38-caliber revolver in his waistband as he tried to ride away from the police on a bicycle on Aug. 11, 2010 in the Austin neighborhood on the West Side.

Dotson — then 17 — pleaded guilty and faced hard prison time.

But Judge Vincent Gaughan gave the teen a break and sentenced him to the Cook County Jail’s boot camp — a four-month program with eight months of supervision.

But it didn’t prevent Dotson from breaking the law.

He was busted for drug possession in 2011. Then on July 16, he allegedly shot two men and a woman and tossed a .40-caliber Glock handgun from a car before he was arrested in the Austin neighborhood.

Now, he’s awaiting trial on charges of attempted murder, illegal gun possession and aggravated battery.

Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy pointed to Dotson’s boot-camp sentence as an example of what’s wrong with criminal justice in Illinois.

“Eighty-five percent of murders in this city are by gunfire, so what message does it send about our priorities when state law doesn’t provide stiff punishment for criminals who carry illegal weapons?” McCarthy said in a prepared statement.

“Without a change in state law, you can’t fault judges or prosecutors who are simply following it,” he said.

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez is now exploring “legislative remedies” that would prevent gun offenders from being sentenced to boot camp instead of prison, said her spokeswoman, Sally Daly.

“We don’t see [boot camp] as an appropriate sentence,” Daly said. “These individuals need to be sentenced to prison terms. There needs to be an appropriate punishment and a deterrent for the gun violence we continue to see.”

Violent offenders are barred from Cook County’s boot camp. But state law does not classify illegal gun possession as a violent crime. And the law doesn’t prohibit gun offenders from being sentenced to boot camp instead of prison, said Benjamin Breit, a spokesman for Sheriff Tom Dart, who runs the jail.

Some judges have chosen to send as many as one in five gun possession offenders to boot camp, while others don’t opt for boot camp at all, according to a Chicago Sun-Times review of court records.

In 2012, the boot camp housed 70 people convicted of gun possession. This year, 42 people convicted of gun possession have entered the boot camp. Thirty-one of them have completed the four-month program and were placed on supervision.

Cook County’s boot camp focuses on providing inmates with job skills, education and discipline, Breit said. The inmates tend a jail garden, learn to cut hair and even raise chickens.

Those who complete the program are far less likely to return to court than those in the general prison population, Breit said.

On the condition of anonymity, judges have told the Sun-Times they need the discretion to sentence offenders ­— even those convicted of gun possession — to boot camp when there is a strong chance they could become rehabilitated.

But Roseanna Ander, executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, disagreed.

“We should be treating illegal gun carrying like the violent crime it is. If violent offenders aren’t eligible for boot camp, I don’t know why UUW offenders would be,” Ander said, referring to unlawful use of a weapon, which is what illegal gun possession is called in Illinois.

A recent mass shooting in Cornell Square Park on the South Side generated national attention and put a bright light on the issue of gun offenders getting sentenced to boot camp.

Bryon Champ, 21, has been charged with firing into a crowd in the park on Sept. 19 in retaliation for a gang-related shooting that left him with a graze wound earlier in the day. Thirteen people — including a 3-year-old boy — were wounded.

Fourteen months earlier, police caught Champ with a loaded handgun after they responded to a call of shots fired on the South Side. He was charged with aggravated unlawful use of a firearm because he was a felon, previously convicted of possession of a stolen vehicle.

Judge James Linn sentenced Champ to boot camp on the gun charge — even though prosecutors had sought prison time.

McCarthy and Alvarez are not only calling for an end to the practice of sending gun offenders like Champ to boot camp, but they have been urging the legislature to stiffen the prison sentences for illegal gun possession.

A stiff mandatory minimum sentence could have meant that Champ would have been behind bars on Sept. 19 instead of allegedly firing into a crowd, according to McCarthy.

But proposed legislation that would have boosted the penalties for illegal gun possession didn’t pass the General Assembly earlier this year.

A Sun-Times review of sentencing dispositions found that some judges have chosen the boot camp option for gun offenders far more often than others.

Of the 20 Cook County judges who handled the most gun possession sentences in 2011, Gaughan and Judge William Lacy both sentenced about 20 percent of gun possession offenders to boot camp.

On the other end of the spectrum, Judge William O’Brien didn’t send any gun possession offenders to boot camp. Instead, O’Brien sent all 30 of them to prison.


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