Ordinarily, someone convicted of a crime dresses up to be sentenced. But last April 24, his day of reckoning before Federal Judge Michael Mihm in Peoria, Tony Seibert picked out a different sort of outfit. “I dressed the way I would have if I was going into town to eat dinner,” remembers Seibert, who lives on the family farm in Gilson, 35 miles northwest of Peoria. “A suit and tie just isn’t part of my rural wardrobe, so I went in blue jeans and a sweater. I didn’t want to create a phony impression, like I was a Mr. Clean or something.”
Seibert faced the day with some anxiety. The previous October, after three months of surveillance, 25 federal, state, and local agents had swooped down on the Seiberts’ 150-acre spread. They’d seized Tony and his father, Nick, and 2,800 curing marijuana plants, which local papers valued at between three and four million dollars but the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) would later assess at more like $5.6 million. A slightly larger weed crop was found at the home of an alleged confederate; and the Seiberts found themselves celebrated for their part in the largest clandestine marijuana-growing operation ever uncovered in the state of Illinois. The charges threatened each of them with 45 years in prison.
Nick Seibert, a pipefitter as well as a farmer, had agreed to grow the marijuana in order to salvage the debt-ridden family homestead. “It was strange, because my dad was never a radical by any means,” relates Tony, an ingenuous, bearded man of 24. “He didn’t smoke marijuana, and neither did I. Ever. When my older brother did, Dad read him the riot act. Dad had lived a law-abiding life up until he got involved in this [marijuana growing]. But we weren’t doing well with the farm. You know what they say, a drowning man will grab the edge of a sword to save his life.”
The Seiberts began cultivating marijuana in May of 1986. The sword’s sharp edge soon took its toll of the son. Tony was beset by constipation, and a painful crack developed in his colon.
“I was relieved when they arrested us,” says Tony, “relieved of a burden. It’s unpleasant to live a life of crime, to have to hide from society and to worry about who you talk to.” The Seiberts were so eager to set that burden down that no sooner were they arraigned than they confessed their transgressions to the TV cameras waiting for them to leave the federal courthouse in Peoria. Eventually both pleaded guilty.
Nick Seibert was the first to stand before Judge Mihm for sentencing. Tony’s father had prepared a speech in which he meant to outline the financial straits he had led his family into and the remorse he felt for involving Tony in the scheme. But Nick Seibert was soon silenced by his own tears, and he returned to his seat at the defense table, where he continued to weep. “He was just beaten,” says Tony. “I had seen my dad cry only once before, and that was when my little sister had died at birth 15 years ago.” Calling it “reprehensible” for Tony’s father to have enlisted him in crime, Judge Mihm sentenced the senior Seibert to four years in prison.
Well, I guess I’ll be going to jail, too, Tony thought as his turn came before Judge Mihm.
K. Tate Chambers, the assistant U.S. attorney, called Tony “an honest man” but asked the judge to imprison him for three years. Steve Tolley, a much-respected Galesburg farmer for whom the young man was working, testified on Tony’s behalf. Tony pleaded with the judge, as did his lawyer. But Tony’s great advantage here was the testimony of a woman named Mary DeSloover, who is executive director of the midwest branch of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives (NCIA).
NCIA contends that incarceration frequently benefits neither the criminal nor society. For such a criminal, it advocates a sentence blended of probation, community service, and (where there is a victim) monetary restitution. Before Judge Mihm, DeSloover outlined what NCIA wished for Tony: probation accompanied by “long-term” volunteer jobs at the local American Red Cross chapter and a center for the blind. DeSloover’s recommendations were backed by a 50-page report, what NCIA calls a “client specific plan,” that contained background on both alternative sentencing and Tony’s particular situation.
Judge Mihm assigned Tony Seibert to five years’ probation and 800 hours of community service, and ordered him to pay a $5,000 fine.
“I was happy,” says Tony, and he believes society should also be pleased. “I didn’t have to go to jail to get the message. I was arrested once, and it was a biggie arrest, too, don’t forget–I was scared straight. Give me probation and community service, and I will contribute to the community and become law-abiding again. But send me to jail and my skills will deteriorate while I take up the space that should be occupied by a rapist or murderer. Should I be the one living off your taxes, sitting around watching TV and reading magazines, when I could be on the outside fixing potholes or painting the schools? That’s a better use of your tax dollars, I say, and I’m reformed in the process.”
“There are certain offenders who clearly belong in prison–rapists, murderers, violent exhibitionists,” says Mary DeSloover, a criminal-justice analyst who took over the NCIA branch in Chicago 18 months ago. “In situations of extreme violence, we all need to be protected and the criminals must be punished. By the same token, prisons often turn less hardened offenders into true criminals. For these people, we advocate what’s called the least restrictive deterrent that is consistent with punishment and the public safety, and for the most part that means it’s better for somebody to work off his offense than sit around in a jail cell.”
It’s also cheaper. According to the Illinois Department of Corrections, it now costs $16,000 to house and maintain one inmate in a state prison for one year. The John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group, puts the annual toll at $20,000. Whatever the real cost, prison is far more expensive than the alternative. “Besides,” points out DeSloover, “the guy under an alternative program is working, contributing to society, and in some instances paying his victim back.”
The Chicago NCIA handles 80 “clients” a year in a region composed of Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, and Indiana–though most of these clients are here in Cook County. They are all awaiting sentencing, having either been convicted of a crime or pleaded guilty to one. If the NCIA takes your case, DeSloover and one of her half-dozen “case developers” will spend up to a month combing through your background, talking to friends, family, and therapists, creating your client specific plan.
The plan, bound in a stately gray cover and marked “confidential,” will be given to the judge shortly before your sentencing. It will be full of biographical detail, medical reports, letters of recommendation, and other personal data, and it will be frank–if you were molested by your mother, it’ll say so. Each fact will have been provided by at least two sources. This workup will dwarf the presentencing report of the overloaded county probation departments (in Cook County these reports normally run six to eight pages). And, unlike a probation department, the NCIA will make a prescription, usually a probation-based sentence heavy in community service (400 hours or more is typical) and drug or psychological treatment. More often than not, the case developer will testify at the sentencing hearing.
The cost of NCIA’s services ranges from nothing for an indigent to $7,500 for an affluent criminal in a federal court, where more complex requirements than local courts demand must be met before an alternative sentence can be considered (new guidelines have made these requirements even stiffer). The results usually make the price worthwhile; Mary DeSloover says 71 percent of local NCIA clients have found themselves serving either alternative time or prison sentences that the center is confident it helped to reduce.
Headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, NCIA was founded in 1977 by Herbert Hoelter and Jerome Miller, the latter a controversial director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services under Governor Dan Walker. The not-for-profit agency maintains seven regional offices and prepares alternative-sentence briefs in 1,000 cases a year.
An impressive number have been for prominent criminals, among them Paul Thayer, a former undersecretary of defense; clothing designer Stanley Blacker; and two key figures in recent insider stock-trading scandals, investment banker Dennis Levine and Wall Street Journal reporter R. Foster Winans. NCIA’s record with notables is mixed. On one hand, Blacker, who pleaded guilty to insurance fraud, paid nearly $200,000 in restitution and taught disadvantaged kids to make and market logo T-shirts; on the other hand, Thayer, convicted of insurance fraud, went to prison for four years. Under a media spotlight, says Hoelter, “all we can usually do is mitigate the sentence.”
Jerome Miller finds NCIA’s championing of the famous nothing to apologize for. “Our bread-and-butter work is not with celebrities,” says Miller, “but if we can keep these folks out of prison all the better. My liberal friends usually get critical, but what we’ve always said is that if we can spread around the largesse the middle class has always enjoyed from the criminal justice system, that’s to the good. We are not about the business of making sure the white-collar offender gets the kind of justice the street offender has been subjected to, because what the street offender has received is terrible.”
Ironically, Dan Walker could recently have used the good offices of his former deputy. As Walker’s DCFS director in 1973, Miller shook things up, bringing 800 foster children back to Illinois from out-of-state institutions and adopting a policy of placing abandoned kids in private homes rather than with private child-care agencies; this riled the agencies, and also the state’s community of social workers. In 1974 Walker dumped Miller from DCFS and Miller moved to an equivalent position in Pennsylvania before establishing NCIA with Hoelter, who had been his aide there. Last November, a federal judge sentenced Walker to seven years in prison for misappropriating funds from a savings and loan he owned for personal purposes. If Walker had called Miller for help “I would have responded in a minute,” says Miller. “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
DeSloover’s Chicago branch, founded in 1985 by the late defense attorney Keith Davis and notably bankrolled by the Chicago Community Trust, has handled its own celebrities. Circuit Court Judge Frank Salerno, a target of the Greylord investigation, was assisted by NCIA after he pleaded guilty to federal charges of taking bribes. He was fined $10,000 last October and sentenced to nine years in prison, with 300 hours of community service to follow.
Tony Seibert received considerable press attention. So did Dwayne Coulter. Prosecutors described Coulter as a killer for hire who was on his way to commit a contract murder in 1985 when a sheriff’s deputy stopped him for a traffic violation. Coulter pulled a gun and the deputy was shot dead. Although he disputed the nature of his business that day and contended the shooting was an accident, Coulter was convicted of murder. Now the NCIA stepped in, producing a plan that described Coulter’s loving relationship with his son, a history of physical abuse as a child, and a reputation in his neighborhood for counseling kids out of gangs and teaching them karate. The jury that convicted Coulter was persuaded not to sentence him to death.
But the names of NCIA’s usual clients, if they ever do appear in the papers, fall out of view in a day or two. DeSloover says NCIA turns down “incorrigible” criminals, though her definition of incorrigible might not be yours. “We handled a wife beater,” DeSloover remembers. “He has a history of abusing women, largely ’cause he drinks too much. The man’s 40 now, and since he’s been 20 he hasn’t gone a year without a conviction. I met with the guy and realized ‘Gee, nobody has ever tried to change his behavior.’ Well, now he’s in group counseling, he’s seeing a psychologist, and three days a week he’s at Alcoholics Anonymous. He’s paying back his latest victim and doing 800 hours of community service. He’s doing fine.”
For most NCIA clients, getting to the point of “doing fine” can be a tortuous journey.
Early December, 1985: the Chicago Bears were rolling toward the Super Bowl, and Gus Waitkus (not his real name) flew to Miami to watch the Bears take on the Miami Dolphins.
Waitkus was a dark-haired young man who had grown up in the north suburbs and now worked in the family business, a company that made shoe products. He knew south Florida well, having gone to junior college there, and he was well acquainted with one of the region’s notable imports–since college Waitkus had been an enthusiastic cocaine user. Waitkus was consuming up to 20 grams of coke a week; his habit often kept him awake for days at a time.
The Miami victory didn’t dampen Waitkus’s spirits. “We just partied all night long,” he recalls, and during the revelry he ran into a friend who owed him money. “To pay me back,” says Waitkus, “the guy just gave me a bunch of coke. Obviously, he was a big-time buyer.”
Standing outside Midway Airport one evening a few days later, Waitkus was approached by a Chicago narcotics officer named Richard Crowley and searched for drugs. What Crowley found in the pocket of Waitkus’s windbreaker was a plastic bag containing 141.24 grams of coke. Its street value today, the DEA estimates, is at least $4,000.
Waitkus was charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver, an offense that threatened to bring him 6 to 30 years behind bars. Unable to post the required 10 percent of a $400,000 bond, Waitkus spent two days in the Cook County Jail hoping a family attorney could get it reduced. Jail rattled Waitkus. “It was me and 12 no-bonder murderers. I had no blanket, no toothpaste, and no hot water. I was pretty scared. I thought to myself, this just serves me right.”
But after he was bailed out, Waitkus began to feel more optimistic. For one thing, his new Miami-based lawyer, Sheldon Golding, was confident Criminal Court Judge James Heyda would dismiss the charges on grounds Waitkus had been improperly searched. But Judge Heyda did not throw out the case. A trial loomed. When Crowley suffered a heart attack and underwent bypass surgery, “I wasn’t praying for Crowley to die,” says Waitkus, “only that he sustained enough damage so he has to retire early.”
It wasn’t to be: with eight days to spare before Illinois’ speedy-trial law would have rescued Waitkus from jeopardy, he went to trial at 26th and California.
Crowley was able to testify, and Waitkus himself took the stand. He admitted he was a drug abuser but he denied the cocaine was for anyone’s use but his own. Prosecutor Nancy Martin portrayed Waitkus as a hardened drug courier. In rebuttal, Sheldon Golding pulled out all the stops, and he told his client he was optimistic about an acquittal. Waitkus knew better: “I had made up my mind that last day that I was going to jail. So when the foreman came back and said ‘Guilty’ I was ready mentally. I got out my wallet and car keys and gave them to my brother.”
Waitkus was overreacting. Judge Heyda set a date for sentencing and allowed Waitkus to remain free until it arrived. Now Waitkus had to be decisive. He fired Golding on the spot, in Heyda’s courtroom, and soon hired a new lawyer named Louis Carbonaro with a reputation for his spirited defense of mobsters.
Carbonaro, who’d read about NCIA in a magazine article, approached the center. “You send a young kid like Waitkus to the penitentiary today and you might as well shoot him before he goes in,” says Carbonaro. “It’s a goddamn jungle in there. The gangs run the place; the guards are all fruits and degenerates who watch the rapes.” So while Carbonaro drafted a posttrial motion arguing technical reasons to reduce Waitkus’s conviction from a Class X felony to something that didn’t mandate prison, NCIA worked up Waitkus’s client plan.
Roseanne McDonnell, Waitkus’s NCIA case developer, devoted three weeks to painting a blunt portrait of Waitkus. Mathias Waitkus was 54 years old when Waitkus was born, and as long as Waitkus knew his father he was an alcoholic with no interest in any of his children beyond lavishing material possessions on them. In high school, Waitkus developed his own drinking problem, which his parents denied and which therefore went unaddressed. A passion for marijuana and alcohol followed Waitkus to college, and drugs dogged him ever after. NCIA even ran Waitkus through the chemical dependence unit at Grant Hospital, which reported that as he awaited sentencing Waitkus was consuming huge amounts of beer and two to three joints a day.
“Waitkus had been muddling through life without any structure or direction,” says McDonnell, whose mission was to convince the court that the sentence she intended to propose would give him some. If Judge Heyda let the Class X conviction stand, then Waitkus deserved the shortest possible prison term–six years–because he had no prior criminal convictions and recognized his addiction. And should the judge accept Carbonaro’s motion, an alternative sentence was in order, McDonnell argued: antidrug therapy at Grant Hospital, “long-term” community service through the Chicago branch of Narcotics Anonymous, and “supervision,” instead of probation, by a devoted family friend.
“Waitkus’s problem is one that has affected many good people from all walks of life,” wrote a pained George Waitkus, Waitkus’s older brother and surrogate father, in the most moving passage of the NCIA plan. “It is a problem that has been put into the closet and left to fester until it has affected everyone. Please give this young man a chance to change his life within society and a chance for society to help him and benefit from his experiences. . . . As his brother, a part of his flesh and blood, I offer a personal reassurance that his past behavior will never again be condoned. He will not be abandoned or neglected and will be treated for his problems.”
Last July, when Waitkus appeared for sentencing, George Waitkus addressed Judge Heyda directly. Roseanne McDonnell went over the NCIA plan, which Judge Heyda had already received in writing. Fortunately for Waitkus, the judge granted Carbonaro’s motion to reduce the conviction. And now he showed himself inclined to adopt many of NCIA’s suggestions. “I saw this kid who was scared to heck,” Heyda remembers, “who had no prior convictions and a job. I was well aware of the drug problem he faced. It looked like I could square him around without sending him to the penitentiary.”
The judge sent Waitkus back to Cook County Jail for 90 days, with four years of probation to follow, a year of it within the Intensive Probation Supervision program of the Adult Probation Department of Cook County, which resembles house arrest. Both in jail and out, Waitkus had to undergo drug therapy. And there was an obligation of 400 hours of community service.
The 90 days weren’t as onerous as he’d expected. “It was OK,” Waitkus remembers. “The guys I was with were street-gang murderers, but I didn’t land in any fights and I wasn’t threatened.” The worst part was the drug treatment program, which meant he had to live in a special jail-house unit the jail runs in conjunction with the Gateway Foundation. Gateway believes that drug abusers need a “structured environment in which they have to demonstrate responsible behavior,” a spokesman says. “They give you all these crazy rules,” gripes Waitkus, “and when you break them you have to walk around with a cardboard sign.”
When Waitkus was released from County Jail last October he discovered how rigid a structure can be. Mandated by the Illinois legislature in 1984 as a way of reducing the prison population, Intensive Probation Supervision holds convicts to an exacting schedule. For the first three months, he must be in his house from 7 PM to 7 AM; he cannot so much as stroll in his yard after curfew. Probation officers stop by at unpredictable times to check on compliance.
Waitkus’s weekdays run like this: He leaves for work at 7, stopping en route to see his IPS officers, toils until 4 in the afternoon, drives 30 minutes to a health club near his home (he still bunks with his parents), where he runs and lifts weights, does errands, and hits his driveway at the dinner hour. In the evening, “I sit and watch bad TV.” The quiet of the suburban nights is often broken, sometimes after midnight, by Waitkus’s IPS officers rapping gently on the door, checking to see if he’s in. The weekend brings no relief. He spends all day Saturday and Sunday scrubbing floors and retrieving trash at a nearby water-treatment plant to fulfill his community-service requirement. Twice a week he sees a drug therapist for a talk session, and to prove he’s staying clean he undergoes regular urinalysis.
Waitkus dreams that someday he will dust off an old ambition and become a stock options trader. But not now. “Most of my waking hours I’m a slave,” he says, “and otherwise I’m trapped in my house. I can have friends over, and I do drink now. But my friends like to go out on dates, to movies and concerts, and I can’t go, obviously. Basically I’m left out of things. I don’t have a girlfriend now. How could I possibly date?”
After three months, his curfew was relaxed to 8 PM. “Whoopee,” says Waitkus.
The alternative sentence imposed on Gus Waitkus seems to be working out to his benefit–it’s straightening out a casebook screw-off–but with other NCIA clients the results are more iffy.
Before he was sentenced by Judge Mihm in Peoria, Tony Seibert had found it difficult to find a job. “I’d go out to see prospective employers and they’d play this little name game with me. They’d hear my name and then toy with it. ‘Gee,’ they’d say, ‘where have I heard your name before?’ But Steve Tolley was nothing but class.”
Tolley, who cultivates 4,500 acres near Galesburg, hired Seibert as a farmhand a year ago because he liked what he saw on Seibert’s employment application. “Far as I’m concerned,” Tolley told Seibert, “your past is behind you.” Seibert became a jack-of-all-trades for Tolley, boarding in an apartment Tolley owned, using a portion of his paycheck to retire the $5,000 fine, and banking the rest.
Seibert set out to fulfill half his community service obligation by volunteering at the Visually Handicapped Center in Galesburg. The tasks he was assigned annoyed him, especially a project that required him to paint a building though no advance thought had been given to where he was going to get brushes, rollers, and paint pans. “And the building wasn’t even scraped,” points out Seibert.
“It was a big mix-up, not to mention a hassle,” says the center’s executive director, Lory Leon. “He came here twice, for ten hours tops. He acted like he was doing me the favor. It ended up him telling me he didn’t have to come if he didn’t want to.”
In any event, Seibert’s hours at the center were irregular, and Tolley became unhappy at not knowing when his farmhand would be available. Last October, Seibert arranged to volunteer exclusively for the Knox County chapter of the American Red Cross. Each Tuesday afternoon Seibert does ground maintenance and light carpentry and tends the fleet of vehicles at the Red Cross office in Galesburg. “He’s a very likable young man,” says Lynne Tyler, a spokesman for the chapter. “He’s working out fine.”
Steve Tolley wouldn’t say the same. In mid-December, Galesburg was smacked with a heavy snow. Tolley, with 1,200 hogs to care for, was appalled when Seibert announced he was quitting. “He just basically walked out on me,” says Tolley, “which I thought was terribly immature.” In his own defense, Seibert says he worked an extra two days, rescuing pigs buried in drifts, before he disappeared to pursue a dream of raising pigs on his own.
The Seibert farm, where Tony keeps his pigs, now belongs to the Farmers Home Administration. Nick Seibert is in the federal prison in Marion. Tony’s brother Vince is struggling to make a go of the family farm, where he’s now a tenant, but it remains very possible that the government will sell the place. The 52 hogs Tony bought aren’t much. “My animals are junkers,” he admits. “They need a little Alpo. They have arthritis in their joints. Let’s just say they are underachievers.”
Steve Tolley thinks Tony is being foolish. “He isn’t improving himself at all. He doesn’t have enough of what it takes to succeed on his own today in agriculture.” Tony Seibert disagrees. “I have 50 head this time,” he says. “Even with what hog prices are now I should more than break even with ’em. By April I’ll have 100 head, by August, 170. I’m only 24 years old. Hopefully I’ll do OK, though I do have a millstone around my neck.”
So does Linda Jones (a pseudonym), a rotund woman of 39. Abandoned at birth, Jones weathered a dozen foster homes before being adopted by a prosperous west-side couple. But adoption failed to end her troubles. Linda was only 12 when her first child was born (the result of a sexual attack, her NCIA plan would say); the years that followed brought a stormy marriage to a garbage collector and four more children–most, the NCIA would report, born out of wedlock. In 1980 and again in 1985 she was sent to Dwight Correctional Center for writing bad checks.
After Jones was released from Dwight in March of 1986, her fortunes seemed to improve. She regained custody of her two youngest kids, both boys, and settled into a comfortable house in Indian Head Park. She found a couple of well-paying jobs working with the disabled, earned a degree from the College of DuPage, and got some additional schooling at the National College of Education; in addition, Jones founded an agency designed to assist rape victims.
The renaissance ended last May. Jones was accused of bilking a savings and loan out of about $500 by reporting some traveler’s checks missing, then both applying for a refund and trying to cash the checks she’d said were lost. “This supposedly had to do with walking into a bank and cashing a money order,” says Jones, who denies culpability. Arrested and charged with theft by deception, Jones plea-bargained her sentence down from 90 days in jail to 30. “See, if I went away for too long what was I going to do with my kids?” she explains.
But even 30 days struck Jones as too much. Given three weeks to report, she looked around for help. A friend referred her to NCIA, and soon Jones had a new attorney and a client specific plan that recounted her background and reported that both Jones and her 11-year-old son, a victim of sickle-cell anemia, were in psychotherapy. The plan–proposing a year’s probation and 200 hours of volunteer work with the Blind Service Association in the Loop–was presented to Criminal Court Judge James Stack last September. Stack thought about it for a day and rescinded the 30-day sentence in favor of NCIA’s alternative.
We taxpayers may have profited from the judge’s decision, but has Linda Jones? Her assignment from the Blind Service Association was to tape-record stories, and she found this onerous. “You cannot sit me in a room for two hours at a stretch and have me just read,” says Jones. “That isn’t me. God, it drove me craz-ee. I have nothing against blind people, but I hated what I did there.”
Beatrice Fredman, executive director of the Blind Service Association, says Jones showed up for a total of six hours and vanished in early October. “She kind of dribbled off,” says Fredman. Since then, Jones has quit a part-time job she had as runner at an Evanston law firm. She says a tumble she took down her basement stairs in late October fractured her pelvis and kept her from doing any kind of service work while she mended; recently she took on clerical duties at a senior citizens center in LaGrange.
“I do make it in to see the judge,” Jones says. “When I go in front of him he asks me what I’m doing and all other kinds of stupid questions. He teases me about where I live, which is an all-white town.”
Of her alternative sentence in general, she says, “It’s ridiculous, I resent it, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”
“Our job is not to see these people turn into perfect middle-Americans, though if they do that, great,” explains Mary DeSloover. “If they become crime-free, that’s as much as the system can expect of them.”
What is NCIA’s record by that standard? Five separate studies show that 20 to 25 percent of NCIA clients are later charged with a new offense or return to prison, says cofounder Herbert Hoelter; in contrast, the most recent recidivism rate for ex-convicts from Illinois state prisons is 62 percent, according to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.
Hoelter believes that NCIA represents the future of crime and punishment. “The whole community corrections field is growing by leaps and bounds. All we’re saying is that when your day of judgment comes, the judge should have a range of options to consider: probation at one end, jail at the other, and other things–our things–in between. There are a variety of ways to get justice. The public has been duped by the corrections people into thinking that jail is the only way to bring law and order. It isn’t, and besides, they have done a lousy job.”
Is NCIA merely coddling criminals? “Coddling?” wonders Hoelter. “If I’m the victim of a burglary, I’d rather have the perpetrator pay $1,000 for my lost stereo than sit in prison for six months. What’s prison? You sit in a cube all day long watching Mickey Mouse cartoons. There is no retribution in that–and we are paying a lot of money for it.”
“I don’t mind being accused of coddling criminals,” says Jerome Miller. “Actually, I feel offenders aren’t coddled enough. Call me a bleeding heart, ’cause that’s what I am. I think there is something therapeutic in our alternatives. We listen to a person and give credence to his life history. Then, we try to fashion a proposal to fit the person’s strengths. A plan merely surrounds those areas and times where the guy is going to get into trouble.”
Understandably, few prosecutors embrace the NCIA approach. State’s Attorney Richard Daley feels alternative sentences diminish the seriousness of serious crimes, says spokesman Terry Levin, and would rule out armed robbers and burglars as candidates. “We might be talking about a shoplifter,” Levin says, “but not about a shoplifter who has done it repeatedly. If someone stole a million bucks, there, too, we wouldn’t consider it. And Daley considers it completely inappropriate for drug peddling.”
Ironically, NCIA finds that many defense attorneys also fail to appreciate the agency. “Trial attorneys get absolutely no training as to what can be done at sentencing,” explains DeSloover. “I always tell them to think of any sentencing as you would in a capital [death penalty] case. But few lawyers do that. They are taught from law school onwards that the trial itself is the name of the game. You never see Perry Mason worrying about a sentencing, now do you?”
Paul Biebel, the interim Cook County public defender, concedes that “after you have a finding of guilty the interest wanes.” But he says his office, newly educated about NCIA, “will be using those plans more often.”
Criminal Court Judge Michael Getty likes what NCIA does. Getty, who’s a member of the local NCIA board, has applied five of the six plans presented to him during the last few years. “A plan is of little help when I’m faced with a mandatory sentence that I must follow,” says the judge. “Where one is helpful is with a candidate for probation who still has a bad background. But if a highly structured probation program is given to me, I can consider that–and maybe save the taxpayers a lot of money and rehabilitate an individual.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.