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First Prisoners Released Two Years After Illinois Passed Law to Revisit Excessive Sentences

When Charles Patton, 54, rolled out of Dixon Correctional Center in his wheelchair on July 19, 2023, he was the first Illinois prisoner freed under SB 2129, a re-sentencing measure passed two years earlier. The second was Derron Johnson, 37, who was released two weeks later. Patton had served 17 years of a 44-year sentence for heroin trafficking. Johnson had served 20 years of a 27-year term for abetting a 2002 murder committed by a fellow teen who plea-bargained for a shorter term and had already been released.

Both Patton and Johnson were freed after prosecutors petitioned their sentencing courts under the law, which took effect in January 2022. But they are the only ones so far, showing how far the measure has fallen short of its goal to relieve the state’s overcrowded Department of Corrections (DOC) by reducing excessive sentences.

The nonprofit For the People believes only a few hundred people have been freed in the six states to pass such a law since California adopted the first one in 2019. Though appreciative of the chance SB 2129 provided him, Patton called it “no effective way to ease the strangling of the jails.”

“The simpler thing to do is to institute parole,” he said.

But Illinois ended parole in 1978, so the new law was his only hope of early release. Patton’s family got pro bono help from attorney Kendra Spearman, who convinced Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney Michelle Mbekeani to review trial transcripts. Discovering that even Judge Dennis J. Porter called Patton’s 44-year term “more than excessive,” Mbekeani went to Judge Michael R. Clancy, who inherited the case, convincing him that Patton’s health and “model behavior” in prison “reduced the defendant’s risk for future violence and reflect changed circumstances since his original sentence.” With his sentence cut to 35 years, after credits he had earned were applied, Patton was able to leave prison the next day.

Kane County State’s Attorney Jamie Mosser took up Johnson’s case partly because of the apparent racial disparity between the term handed Johnson, who is Black, and that given to Andrew Proctor, the white teen who fatally beat 22-year-old John Szilage with a baseball bat. Still testimony from Szilage’s family—about months waiting for his body to be found in a garbage can where Johnson helped hide it—left Judge Donald M. Tegeler Jr. visibly shaken. He granted the state’s motion “[o]ver my abhorrent objection,” reducing the sentence to time served.

Mosser blames SB2129’s puny results on the law itself, which she calls “horribly written.” It doesn’t allow defendants to petition for their own resentencing, and it doesn’t provide resources for prosecutors to hire personnel dedicated to resentencing. In fact, the law offers zero guidance as to the types of cases prosecutors should consider.

“What if it’s not me sitting in this chair?” Mosser said. “What a horrible miscarriage of justice that would be for Derron Johnson.”  


Source: Injustice Watch

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