Illinois taxpayers spend $50,000 to punish man for $111 theft

Prison terms for relatively minor crimes are more common than you might think. Almost a third of the men in Vandalia prison downstate are there for so-called “subsequent misdemeanors.”

March 25, 2013

WBEZ/Rob Wildeboer
William Jessup looks through some of the grievances he’s filed at Vandalia prison in southern Illinois. The prison system is overcrowded partly because judges send people to prison for relatively minor crimes when those people have racked up a number of offenses. Jessup got a 4-year sentence for having a stolen license plate sticker.

Timothy Agnew was likely a pretty serious threat to public safety a few years ago in his neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. He’s got a long list of gun charges on his record, including UUW (Unlawful Use of Weapon) and Aggravated UUW and UUW by a felon.  Prison is probably a pretty good place for the 24 year old.

He’s currently serving a six-year sentence at Vandalia in southern Illinois. He complains about the length of the sentence, saying it’s too long but adds,  “At the rate I was going this probably saved me.”

Compare Agnew’s crime to that of Jeffrey Elders.

“I was in the mall at J.C. Penney’s.  A hundred and eleven dollars put me back in prison for two and a half years,” said Elders in a recent interview at Vandalia.

Elders has a long history of drug use. “I’ve never had a drug charge in my life but drugs are the root of every time I’ve ever been in prison,” said Elders. He thinks that if it weren’t for drugs he never would have done a day behind bars.

What happens is when his addiction takes over he spends all his money on drugs and then needs to find more money to buy more drugs. That was his situation when one night his sister was headed to the mall and he decided to go with her.

Elders recounts the story: “While she’s in another store I’m over in Penney’s throwing stuff in a bag and walking up to the return desk, you know, I didn’t even leave out of the store with it, I just brought it to the return desk and then they gave me my transaction, which is a gift card. And I started walking out and when I hit the doors I got grabbed.  And you know the police came and ran my record and next thing I know I’m down at the station with a hundred thousand dollar bond for a hundred and eleven dollars, you know, that’s ‘cause of my record.”

So the state locked him up for two and a half years. It costs about $20,000 a year, so let’s say the state spent $50,000 to “treat” Elders.  That treatment has been Elders mostly sitting around in an overcrowded prison dorm. On the plus side, it’s true he hasn’t shoplifted again.

Here’s another kind of goofy case: William Jessup. Jessup was convicted of being in possession of a stolen license plate sticker. Not a stolen car. Not a stolen license plate. Just the sticker on the plate. Jessup was sentenced to four years for that crime.

Now, as is usually the case, there’s more to it. There were concurrent cases and he was released from prison even though he was supposed to be held in a county jail on a different charge and.... It’s a bit of hot mess and I won’t waste time going into all of it. Like I said, it’s all pretty goofy.

“I am embarrassed to admit it’s my fourth incarceration,” said Jessup. “I lost my best friend when I got divorced.Thank God we talk now after five years, and I have a beautiful son, very well-behaved boy. Very smart. And he has a very outspoken disposition. He lets me know how stupid I really was and it breaks my heart knowing that I’m not there for him. That’s all I want to talk about that.”

Jessup says his problems have all been a result of his drug use—just like Jeff Elders, the guy who tried to steal $111 from J.C. Penney.

Jeff Elders shares some thoughts about that: “I’ve been locked up a few times. Rightfully so. I’m here but I believe the court system should have alternatives for people, but that’s just asking the state to pay something else for me. What can you do besides lock us up?  I don’t believe the state should be putting out thousands of dollars trying to rehabilitate me when I’ve shown really I can’t be rehabilitated. I’m 48 years old but I feel I’m a decent person and deserve these chances. But I don’t know what to say on that.”

But of course the state is spending thousands and thousands of dollars on Elders. In fact Illinois spends more than a billion dollars every year on corrections and Elders says, for him, it’s not been terribly effective.

“There’s no rehabilitation,” said Elders. “This is supposed to be, what do you call it, a correctional facility, to help correct and send you back out to be a law abiding citizen?  Not so much. When you’re so overcrowded they can’t get to everybody. There’s not enough programs for everybody. Can you get a job?  No, there’s not enough jobs. Can you go to school? There’s not enough schooling. How are you fixing anything by throwing somebody in a bunk and saying okay, you’re out-date’s in three years. Can’t do nothing more for you.”

On February 28th of this year Elders was one of the 1,696 inmates being held at Vandalia. Four hundred and 95 of those men - almost a third of the inmates -  were there on Class 4 felonies. Class 4 is the lowest category and many of those felonies, they’re not really felony crimes. They’re misdemeanors... sort of. They’re relatively minor crimes.

To explain, here’s Kathy Saltmarsh.

“There’s a significant cohort of people that we incarcerate each year who keep committing misdemeanor level crimes, but they do them over and over and over again,” Saltmarsh said.

Saltmarsh is the director of the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council. That group collects and analyzes data to study the consequences of sentencing decisions. Saltmarsh says you can’t be sentenced to prison for a misdemeanor, but if you commit a couple misdemeanors, then those convictions can be, and often are, rolled together to create a felony.

“The system can get impatient with people that it sees over and over and over again and there’s a certain point at which, it’s like okay, off to DOC you go,” said Saltmarsh.

Saltmarsh says when a judge sees the same offender repeatedly committing petty crimes the judge has few options to increase the sentence other than the very costly prison option. But with 50,000 people jammed into prison in Illinois, does it make sense to send someone like Jeff Elders there too?  Does it make sense to spend $50,000 locking him up because he tried to steal a $111 from J.C. Penney?

Saltmarsh says the State of Illinois needs to ask those questions because Illinois spends a lot of money locking up low-level offenders like Elders.

“You have a significant number of Class 4 felonies churning through DOC every year,” said Saltmarsh. “They stay for a short time and generally you see them coming back. The precious resources at the Department of Corrections that go to programming, generally a Class 4 offender isn’t in DOC long enough to access any of that.”

So low-level offenders get little in the way of rehabilitation, and they strain the already overcrowded department. Saltmarsh says the State of Illinois needs to make priorities for its limited criminal justice resources. A big part of that could be evaluating low-level offenses to figure out if prison is an effective and cost-effective way of dealing with them.