The War Against Humaneness.

Dixon, Illinois is an pretty historic place.  It’s where Illinois’ most famous resident, Abraham Lincoln, decided to join the Blackhawk War.  It was also the boyhood home to another man, Ronald Reagan, who went on to become president.

To criminal defense attorneys and the loved ones of their clients, it’s also home to other people: prisoners at the Dixon Correctional Center.

Two weeks ago I found myself driving by the Lincoln and Reagan historical markers towards the dilapidated, run-down, and generally monotone prison. The place is pretty depressing, but I had the privilege of meeting a client there.

And, I didn’t put “privilege” in quotes for a reason. I’m not being sarcastic (for once).  Every person with an opinion- one way or another- on mandatory minimums, how our justice system works, and what should happen in prison should have the opportunity to visit prisoners.  It’s not as though I would expect it would change your mind either way.  It adds legitimacy to your opinions, though.

I’ve been there many times before. As always, the procedure to go through security was different than the last time I was there.  When I finally got through, I took a seat at my assigned table and waited for my client. And waited. And waited. I waited in that large visiting room for an hour.  I’m still not sure what took so long, but that’s life in the prison.

Continue reading “The War Against Humaneness.”

That Cary Shaken Baby Case, And How Prison Time is Calculated.

Alvin Santiago had been facing charges of shaking a baby in his care while in Cary, Illinois. Today, Judge Prather sentenced him to 9 years in prison.  The Northwest Herald has a great article on today’s sentencing hearing:

Judge orders 9 years for Cary man in shaken baby case

Published: Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014 5:24 p.m. CST


WOODSTOCK – Outside the courtroom, James Greve said he wished his daughter’s former caregiver had been given the same sentence the baby had.

Alvin D. Santiago, 30, on Thursday was sentenced to nine years in prison for shaking Tegan Greve so violently that she required brain surgery. The child was 2 months old at the time.

With day-for-day credit, Santiago will serve about four and a half years behind bars.

But for baby Tegan, it will be at least five more years of doctors visits, medical tests and medication. Even then, James Greve said, whether or not she’ll fully recover remains unknown.

“He got a lesser sentence than my daughter,” he said after an emotional sentencing hearing that included statements from he and wife, Rachel Greve, and tearful testimony from Santiago and his family members.


The article goes on to talk in more detail about the crime as well as the hearing in court.  The part that catches my attention is the focus on the actual amount of time Santiago will spend in prison.  It’s speculated to be around four and a half years.

I say “speculated” because nobody actually knows how long it will be at this point.  It will likely be no less than 4.5 years and will absolutely be no more than 9 years.  Essentially, actual prison time in Illinois gets computed as follows:

  • Most cases are subject to some sort of reduction in time for “good behavior.”  Some are not (like, for example, murder, where there is no good time allowance).  The majority of felonies are “50% cases”, meaning that you may receive a reduction in your sentence up to 50% of the total time.
  • Without getting too technical, it’s also possible to “earn” extra time off.  Some of that extra time is “earned” without any effort- typically 6 months worth.  You might also get an extra break for doing something like earning a G.E.D.

So, typically, its safe to say that on a “garden variety” felony, a person who takes a 5 year sentence will have a minimum sentence of 2 years (5 years multiplied by 50%, and then minus 6 months), and a person sentenced to 9 years will have a minimum sentence of 4.5 months.

Now you’re wondering why somebody could be out in 4.5 years for shaking a baby when they’re sentenced to 9 years?  How is that justice, right?  Especially when the reality is that the overwhelming majority of defendants serve the minimum.

Have you ever been inside a jail or prison?  No?  Have you ever seen an episode of “Locked up”?

If you have, you know that taking an entire population of “criminals” and keeping them from causing trouble isn’t easy.  Some guy is throwing poop and clogging the toilet in the prison.  What are you going to do, put him in segregation?

Fine. Now he’s painting the walls in segregation with poop, and 35 guys in the general population are protesting the first guy’s getting put “in the hole” by urinating on the floor.  Plus, 6 guys got in a fist fight after somebody changed the TV channel in the middle of a great episode of Miami Vice.

What are you going to do now? Put them all in segregation?  Sounds great, but you don’t have the space. The taxpayers want to be tough on crime, but don’t want to pay to be tough on crime- so you don’t have the facilities.

That’s where good time comes in.  The facility has the option to yank some good time and effectively lengthen the sentence.  There’s no judge, no jury and no defense attorney to get in the way (although there typically are some internal jail procedures).  Go ahead… throw that poop. It’s going to cause you 8 more months of prison living.  Is it worth it?

This is exactly what happened to Stevie Fielding.  He got a sentence of 10 years and his jailhouse antics caused him to serve every last day.

Stevie Trailer from Steve James on Vimeo.

If reduced prison sentences are a way to give prisons the opportunity to keep peace and enforce prison policy, then why are most people only serving the minimum?  Why aren’t more people losing good time?

Because the incentive system in prison generally works well.  Being able to lengthen somebody’s prison sentence will typically keep them in line.  The public might not like it, but it gets the job done.

There’s another reason why, too.  Try following the money.

Like I already said, you want to lock people up, but you don’t want to pay for adequate facilities.  There is a lot of pressure on the system to get folks “out” in order to make way for the others coming in.  Plus, there are other enforcement tools- prisoners can lose all sorts of privileges.

So, why would a prison lengthen somebody’s sentence and make its financial situation even more dire when it may be able to achieve the same result by taking away a man’s Fritos and locking him in a room without a TV?  It wouldn’t.

Judge Prather gave Alvin Santiago 9 years in prison today. He might serve 4.5. He might serve 9.  It depends on whether or not he behaves himself, and whether or not you’re willing to put more money into a system you don’t want to put money into.

The criminals in McHenry County are always getting off easy…

I’m always amused to read the internet comments about the McHenry County Justice system.  Many of them think nobody gets harsh sentences.  Like, the judges in Woodstock are just letting people go “for the hell-of-it.”

Today a defendant took a deal for 45 years.  I know what you’re thinking, too- the dumb prisons are probably going to give him all sorts of “good time” and let him out early.  Nobody ever does all the time they’re sentenced too.  Not on cases in Woodstock, anyway.

The prevailing idea that prisons just open the doors and let people out whenever they want is the most ignorant belief people can have about the system.  Nearly any defense attorney, prosecutor, or judge in the courtroom knows exactly how long a sentence will be.  At a minimum, anyway (the that “good time” guys can get off is designed to keep them on their best behavior in the Big House… the prisons can always lengthen the time to it’s maximum sentence).

So, in this particular case the defendant got 45 years on a bunch of different counts.  Turns out, 42 of them are at 85% and 3 of them are at 50% (to be served consecutively).  So, that’s 35.7 years (42 times .85) and 1.5 years (3 times .5) for a total of 37.2 years of actual time spent.  There are also one (depending on current politics) or two more blocks of good time he can get for a total minimum time of 36.7 years (most likely 36.95, though).

If you don’t like that math, don’t blame the courts or prisons, though. Blame yourself. Your elected leaders formulated that system several years back.  If you want it to be 100%, elect the people who will pass that law… and also figure out how to fund the added burden.

Anyhow, people think nobody in McHenry County gets tough sentences.  That defendant is 39 years old.  He will be about 76 years old before the Department of Corrections can even think about letting him out.  That’s older than the average life expectancy for a male in this country.  The average life expectancy for a male in prison is lower, too. A lot lower.

If you’re going to get hung up on numbers and quibble that defendant only got 45 years for his crimes and that’s not “enough years,”  I suppose you could argue his sentence could have been more severe.  If you look at the practicalities and do the math, though, the guy very well got a life sentence.

Tell me how everybody in  McHenry County gets off easy, again?