BLOOMINGTON — Two recent McLean County cases reflect a policy change that means some of the state’s youngest inmates are being sent to prison for years instead of an intensive boot camp for months, further illustrating the problems caused by Illinois’ overcrowded prison system.
Inmates required to serve 85 percent of their sentences are not eligible for Impact Incarceration, a program for offenders ages 17 to 35 who are fit enough to handle the military-style regimen and who meet certain guidelines.
Assignment to Impact Incarceration is based on the offender’s risk level, medical and mental health history, and program space, said IDOC spokeswoman Stacey Solano. The state’s two adult boot camps, in Dixon Springs and DuQuoin, are at capacity with 452 prisoners, with a waiting list of more than 400.
Solano said the 85-percent policy has been in place at least a year, since S.A. Godinez took over as director of the agency in May 2011. IDOC declined to address the agency’s population issue and its possible link to the limitations on boot camp admissions.
In one McLean County case, Tyler Hunt, 21, suspected something was wrong during processing at Stateville Correctional Center, when he was placed in a line with inmates headed to prison instead of boot camp.
Hunt pleaded guilty in February to a Class 1 felony for firing a gun several times into a Normal residence last summer. McLean County Judge Robert Freitag sentenced Hunt to eight years in prison, but recommended him for boot camp.
“I didn’t go to the boot camp line as I thought I would. I was very concerned,” Hunt told Freitag at a recent hearing to reconsider his sentence.
Hunt said state records indicated he was sentenced for a Class X offense that would keep him from qualifying for boot camp. The classification later was corrected, but Hunt still was not allowed in boot camp.
Hunt’s lawyer, Steve Skelton, contacted IDOC but received no response.
“We have a young man who anticipated a release in September 2012 if he was given the opportunity for boot camp. I find this an extremely troubling and disturbing case,” said Skelton.
Hunt’s case and others illustrate the challenges of a prison network that has increased by about 4,000 inmates in two years, said John Maki, director of the John Howard Association, a Chicago-based prison monitoring group.
“The IDOC has some innovative programs, but you can’t do those things for low-level offenders when you’re bursting at the seams,” he said. “It’s a problem for the courts, the lawyers and the IDOC. It’s really a problem for the offenders and the community.”
On Monday, 18-year-old Dalton Starkey was given six years for aggravated discharge of a firearm for his part in an incident last summer when another person fired a gun. Freitag told Starkey that while he would refer him for the boot camp program, he was not optimistic about his chances because of the 85-percent rule.
Starkey’s lawyer, Hal Jennings, thinks prison overcrowding has contributed to the IDOC policy shift.
“The problem is the numbers the state is dealing with and the costs,” said Jennings, adding he worries about the safety of his 5-foot-7, 140-pound client.
“My concern is his ability to survive,” said Jennings, a concern shared by Starkey’s father.
“I truly believe Dalton is one of those people who is ready to make a change and get away from the gangs. Boot camp would be good not only because it’s less time but because it separates him from the gangs,” said Russ Starkey.
Without boot camp, Hunt will serve about four years under a revised sentence handed down by Freitag that takes into account the 85-percent rule not considered in his initial sentence.
Boot camp terms run from 120 to 180 days.
In remarks to Hunt, Freitag repeated what he always says about an Impact Incarceration referral: a judge can find a defendant eligible and recommend him, but IDOC has the final say.
Freitag also said he still thinks Hunt meets the criteria for boot camp, an opinion he expressed in a May 10 letter to Alex Dawson, warden of Logan Correctional Center, where Hunt is housed.
“I am a strong proponent of the Impact program, and have confidence that it would well serve this young man. My only request of you is that this inmate’s situation be given a second look, and that consideration be given to allowing him into the program,” Freitag wrote.
Asked about the letter, Dawson said such decisions are made before an inmate arrives at a prison. IDOC would not answer questions about Hunt’s placement, citing confidentiality rules.