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Judges need to study sentencing

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart

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Updated: January 18, 2014 6:18AM

Let’s hear it, folks, for Chief Cook County Judge Tom Dart, who’s doing his best to make sure other judges don’t inappropriately sentence violent offenders to mere boot camp.

Wait. We got that wrong. Dart isn’t the chief judge; he’s the county sheriff. Sorry for the mistake, but we were confused because Dart is doing what the real chief judge, Timothy Evans, should be doing but is not: pushing criminal court judges to follow the law when imposing sentences.

Prompted by a Sun-Times investigation last month that revealed violent offenders were being improperly sentenced to nothing more than boot camp at the Cook County Jail, Dart wrote a letter last week to judges asking them to confirm that 52 inmates recently sentenced to boot camp were, in fact, eligible for the program.

The letter got fast results. Judges immediately responded that they intended to resentence four of the 52 inmates, would review the sentences of two more inmates, and believed that eight other inmates had been sentenced correctly. Dart is awaiting the judges’ confirmation of the boot camp sentences for the remaining 38 inmates on his list.

Based on his office’s own screening, Dart believes 35 of the offenders are not eligible for mere boot camp. His letter, simply because he sent it, can be seen as a challenge to the judges: Think about imposing a stiffer sentence, one more appropriate under the law, or the onus is on you if this offender commits another violent crime.

We have long argued that boot camp, like the electronic monitoring of offenders in their home communities, can be an excellent alternative to prison. For young, low-level and nonviolent offenders, boot camp offers a better chance at rehabilitation — at a lower cost to taxpayers — than a prison stint with hard-core offenders. Boot camp is a four-month military-style program in which inmates, many of whom are teenagers, attend school and get job training.

But public support for boot camp is undermined when judges ignore state sentencing laws and send the wrong people — violent people — there. Just two weeks ago, a data analysis conducted for the Sun-Times by the University of Chicago Crime Lab showed that gun offenders sentenced to boot camp are more likely to be rearrested than those sent to prison. We can’t help but wonder if that finding says less about the merits of boot camp than about the fact that the wrong people are being sent there.

When judges go too easy on violent offenders, they threaten the very existence of good alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders.

Based on a review of thousands of pages of court records, Frank Main of the Sun-Times reported last month that judges since 2006 have sentenced hundreds of violent felons to boot camp. That included 17 armed robbers — a Class X felony — of whom 12 were arrested for new crimes after their release from the program. One was picked up for armed robbery, another for murder.

If judges are confused about the sentencing laws, as some judges say they are, then it falls to Chief Judge Evans to clear up the confusion. Evans might, for one, compose a memo clarifying those laws — and instructing all judges to follow them. But Evans, who has declined to discuss this issue on the record, often describes his job as only “administrative.” He has shown great reluctance to involve himself in how judges run their courts or determine sentences.

For that same reason — what looks to us like a general loathing to step on colleagues’ toes — Evans also has refused make public data from tracking software that shows how individual judges are performing, which might separate the workhorses from the afternoon golfers.

Chief Judge Evans isn’t behaving like much of a chief.

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