The American Civil Liberties Union and President Donald Trump don’t agree on a lot. But in 2018, Trump signed a law called the First Step Act that had the backing of a broad range of supporters including the ACLU, Republicans and Democrats and Kanye West, who had lobbied the president during a White House visit.
The law gives prisoners convicted of federal crimes a chance to get their time behind bars shortened and lets elderly and sick inmates seek compassionate releases.
In Chicago, hundreds of prisoners, including some of the nation’s most notorious criminals, are using the law to try to get out of prison. And their odds of getting out are good, a Chicago Sun-Times examination of 200 of those cases has found.
Judges here have approved more than 60% of the requests they’ve ruled on, court records show, often over the objections of prosecutors. They so far have granted sentence reductions in 75 of the 200 cases. Forty-five requests were denied. The rest are awaiting a ruling.
Five men serving life sentences have been sprung, including James Yates, convicted in 1998 in a sensational drug case against the Gangster Disciples, a notorious Chicago street gang.
Yates, 51, wasn’t expecting a break. “I was kind of skeptical,” says Yates, who benefited from a provision of the First Step Act that involves crack cocaine.
In 2010, Congress reduced the huge disparity in punishments between crack and powdered cocaine. In the 1980s and 1990s, African Americans had been hit the hardest by the harsher sentences for crack. The First Step Act allows people convicted of crack offenses before 2010 to ask for their prison terms to be recalculated because of the sentencing disparity.
In April, over prosecution objections, U.S. District Judge Elaine Bucklo cut Yates’ life sentence to time served.
“To sit in the yard and take in the fresh air, I don’t really know how to put words on it,” says Yates, now back home in Chicago.
Three of his co-defendants also won their freedom under the First Step Act.
And Larry Hoover, co-founder and former chairman of the Gangster Disciples, has a hearing set for next month on whether he’ll get a break on his life sentence.
Yates says he was an “idiot” to have testified in his own defense. In one colorful exchange, prosecutors asked Yates about a ledger seized at his home. Yates testified that the numbers in it didn’t refer to quantities of drugs. He said they were the numbers of laps his underlings ran around a track to keep in shape.
The jury didn’t buy it.
Yates says he avoided trouble in prison, “staying away from drugs and gambling and violating jailhouse rules, staying away from the drama.”
He says he studied Arabic and taught inmates to use computer software and is thinking about going back to school to finish a degree in electronics.
“It’s a second chance,” he says.
Ron Safer, a defense lawyer who was a federal prosecutor on the Hoover case, says he’s OK with Yates getting out. For Yates, Safer says, “Time served is not exactly a slap on the wrist. It’s more than 20 years. That’s a heavy sentence.”
Yates was among nearly 40 members of his Chicago street gang sentenced to life or given long prison terms.
“I certainly have thought in recent weeks about, you know, the role that we played in mass incarceration,” Safer says. “If I were in charge of the Gangster Disciples investigation — and if it were today — I would still prosecute those same people, but I would advocate for a significantly shorter sentence for some, if not most, of those people.”
With one exception: Hoover, the 69-year-old former gang leader. Safer thinks he should be kept in prison.
“He was the unquestioned leader of a gang that was responsible for a murder rate that, you know, was over double the unacceptable murder rate we have today,” Safer says. “He was the acknowledged top leader of a gang that sold in excess of $100 million of drugs.”
Colleen K. Connell, executive director of the ACLU of Illinois, says she’s pleased the First Step Act is “resulting in relief for a number of people sentenced to inordinately long terms in prison. That was why so many people — from a variety of political backgrounds — came together to move the legislation.”
Connell says Black and Hispanic inmates will “benefit significantly” from the part of the law allowing a reconsideration of sentences.
“We must break our national over-reliance on long, harsh sentences and focus on shorter sentences combined with real rehabilitative services that will reduce prison populations and make our neighborhoods stronger and safer,” she says.
According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the First Step Act led to sentence reductions for nearly 2,400 inmates nationwide through the end of 2019: 2,172 African Americans, 100 Hispanics, 87 whites and 18 people of other races.
In the federal court district for Northern Illinois, 64 convicted prisoners saw their sentences cut under the law during that period, putting the courts in Chicago among the top 10 in the country for sentence reductions. Other busy court systems — including the Southern District of New York and the District of Columbia — had fewer than 20 reductions.
The federal judges in Chicago who have handled the largest number of First Step Act requests have been likely to approve them. They include:
- Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer, who approved 13 requests and denied four.
- Bucklo, who approved 10 and denied five.
- Judge Harry Leinenweber, who approved 10 and denied three.
In arguing against sentence reductions in crack cocaine cases, prosecutors have tried to steer judges toward the “actual conduct” of a defendant.
In one case, Danny Mitchell, 43, was caught in 2006 in a U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives sting, selling crack to an undercover agent. When he pleaded guilty, Mitchell admitted that his crime involved at least 50 grams of crack.
But U.S. District Judge Blanche Manning agreed with evidence prosecutors presented at his 2009 sentencing that Mitchell’s crime involved a great deal more cocaine: 291 grams. And, based on that amount, she gave Mitchell 27 years.
Last November, Mitchell asked to be freed under the First Step Act, his case now reassigned to Leinenweber.
Prosecutors argued the judge should rely on their evidence of 291 grams of crack, which would mean Mitchell wasn’t covered by the First Step Act.
But Leinenweber said he had to rely on the 50 grams that Mitchell, in pleading guilty, admitted his crime involved. Based on that, the judge agreed that Mitchell qualified under the law and set him free on March 9.
Leinenweber, who has overturned four of the lengthy sentences he gave in the 1990s in the Hoover case, seemed fed up with the prosecution in Mitchell’s case.
“The government lodges an argument it has made ad nauseam in other First Step Act cases before this court,” Leinenweber wrote in rejecting it.
Other judges also have criticized the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago for pushing the same reading of the First Step Act.
“As far as this court’s research can determine, every judge in this district who has ruled on the issue has rejected the government’s position,” U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall wrote in an order last year that freed a 49-year-old man serving an 18-year drug sentence.
And U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly wrote that prosecutors had a “tortured and unnatural reading of the statutory language.”
The U.S. attorney’s office won’t comment.
Prosecutors haven’t opposed every request for a new and shorter sentence made under the First Step Act. They’ve agreed with 25 of them and neither opposed nor agreed with 56 other requests.
The list of inmates who are seeking to cut their drug sentences under the First Step Act includes some of the biggest criminal names in Chicago. Among them:
- Joseph Miedzianowski, 67, a former Chicago cop prosecutors called the most corrupt police in the city’s history, who was convicted of running a Miami-to-Chicago drug-trafficking operation. In 2003, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole after being convicted of distributing crack, supplying ammunition to gang members and revealing the identities of undercover cops to his criminal partners. Federal authorities said Miedzianowski also threatened to have lead prosecutor Brian Netols killed.
- Edward Lee “Pacman” Jackson Jr., 49, a high-ranking Conservative Vice Lords gang member who, as a Chicago police officer, was charged with robbing drug dealers with other cops. The FBI arrested Jackson and the others in an investigation called Operation Broken Star, and Jackson was sentenced in 2001 to 115 years in prison. U.S. District Judge Charles Kocoras said the sentence he was imposing was “unbelievably tough” because the crimes were “unbelievably terrible.”
- Marvel Thompson, 51, who became the de facto leader of the Black Disciples after the gang’s “king,” Jerome “Shorty” Freeman, went to prison. The gang pulled in millions of dollars from drug sales and mortgage fraud, according to the FBI, which arrested Thompson in 2004. His crews had avoided arrest, prosecutors said, by tuning in to a Christian radio frequency that Thompson pirated so he could alert them to police activity. A top aide, Donnell Jehan, dated then-Ald. Arenda Troutman (20th), who went to prison for taking bribes. Thompson pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 45 years in prison.
Prosecutors are fighting Thompson’s release, saying in a court filing that “he perpetuated a cycle of violence and lawlessness in his community.”
Prosecutors haven’t responded to the requests by Miedzianowski and Jackson.
Other infamous criminals have used the same law to win compassionate releases:
- Glenn Lewellen, 64, a former Chicago cop convicted of participating in home invasions and robbing drug dealers, cited heart problems and obesity and, as a result, went free.
“Lewellen’s medical conditions and his age put him at serious risk if he contracts COVID-19,” Gottschall ruled May 22. “Lewellen has changed. He presents a very low risk to the public.”
The crooked ex-cop had served nearly nine years of an 18-year sentence — “a long time by any measure,” the judge wrote, rejecting prosecutors’ efforts to keep him in prison.
Joseph Lopez, one of Lewellen’s lawyers, says the mandatory sentences of old were “very excessive” and “draconian, to say the least.”
Noting that some judges have said they regret handing down decadeslong sentences, Lopez says the First Step Act “gives the judges an opportunity to even it up a little bit.”
Compassionate-release requests are being handled “a lot quicker than ever before,” Lopez says. In the past, he says he “had guys come out in pine boxes.”
- Lopez also recently won a compassionate release for Mario Rainone, 65. Leinenweber freed the onetime Chicago Outfit enforcer from prison eight years early.
- Richard Bailey, 90, a conman convicted of racketeering for defrauding Brach’s Candy heiress Helen Vorhees Brach by selling horses to her at inflated prices. He once described Brach as the “goose that laid the golden egg.”
Bailey wasn’t convicted of killing Brach, though, during his sentencing, the judge agreed with prosecutors that a preponderance of evidence showed he conspired to kill her to keep her from going to the police.
Brach disappeared in 1977. Seven years later, a judge declared her dead, though her body never was found.
In 1994, Bailey was sentenced to 30 years in prison, which was seen as tantamount to life in prison.
Turns out it wasn’t. He received a compassionate release in July 2019, despite prosecutors’ objections, after arguing to get out because of his age and declining health.
Another infamous criminal, Paul Schiro, 83, is waiting to see whether he will get out because of age and medical problems that he says make him vulnerable in prison to the coronavirus.
Prosecutors described Schiro as a member of the Chicago Outfit and jewel thief and charged him in 2007 in the landmark Operation Family Secrets case that targeted the mob in Chicago.
A federal judge found that Schiro conducted surveillance during a mob killing in 1986 and sentenced him to 20 years in prison for racketeering. Schiro is scheduled to be freed in 2024.
Another compassionate-release case involved Daniel Glick, convicted of stealing more than $5 million from investors, including two elderly women in nursing homes. In 2018, Glick was sentenced to more than a dozen years in prison. He was supposed to get out in 2029.
Suffering from terminal cancer with a prognosis of just days to live, Glick, 67, sought a compassionate release. He also had COVID-19, though he wasn’t showing any symptoms.
Prosecutors agreed that Glick had “extraordinary and compelling reasons” for a compassionate release but urged U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman to consider whether he might spread the coronavirus if he were freed.
On May 20, Glick’s lawyer filed his request. Prosecutors responded May 22, and, the same day, Gettleman ordered his release.
On May 24, Glick was released from a federal prison in North Carolina and sent to a hospice.
“The prison worked hard to move him,” his lawyer Robert Fisher says. “They realized how sick he was.”
Glick’s children weren’t allowed to visit him when he got out of prison because he was being quarantined. So they said goodbye via Zoom. They were on Zoom with him when he died May 25.
Fisher calls this “a good example” of the First Step Act working as it’s supposed to. “It got done.”