When Kanye West visited the White House in 2018, he thanked President Donald Trump for supporting legislation allowing inmates convicted of drug crimes to seek reductions of their prison sentences.
In that same meeting, the rapper encouraged the president to commute the life sentence of Larry Hoover, co-founder of the Gangster Disciples, the notorious Chicago street gang.
Trump didn’t commute Hoover’s sentence. But a couple of months later, the president signed the bill West was pitching, the First Step Act, allowing the gang kingpin and others to seek shorter prison terms.
Two of Hoover’s former gang lieutenants already have been freed under the law.
Now, U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber, who nearly a quarter of century ago sentenced Hoover to life in prison, is considering his request for a new sentencing hearing under the First Step Act.
Hoover, 69, co-founded the GDs in the late 1960s. He was sent to state prison in 1973, given a 200-year sentence for murder.
While in state prison, Hoover ran a $100 million-a-year drug business, according to federal authorities, who say tens of thousands of gang soldiers continued to work for Hoover in Chicago and other cities, answering ultimately to a corporate-style board that Hoover led as the undisputed chairman.
A federal investigation led to Hoover’s conviction for running a criminal enterprise. Sentenced in 1997 to life in federal prison, he’s being held in the federal super-max prison in Florence, Colorado, which also houses Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera and Ted Kaczynski, the “Unabomber.”
According to Hoover’s lawyers, the First Step Act makes him eligible for a new sentencing hearing. They say it means he can take advantage of changes in the law and court rulings since his sentencing.
Federal prosecutors have said that, no matter what the law allows, Leinenweber still has the discretion to shoot down Hoover’s request.
If Hoover gets a new federal sentence and is released from the prison in Colorado, he’ll still have to serve his murder sentence with the Illinois Department of Corrections. His projected parole date in that case is April 2, 2064.
“Larry should be free because of his age and by virtue of the law,” says Wallace “Gator” Bradley, a former GD enforcer and longtime Hoover supporter. “Let him come home.”
Ron Safer, a former assistant U.S. attorney who helped prosecute Hoover, calls the First Step Act a “wonderful piece of legislation” but says it would be a “miscarriage of justice” to allow Hoover to benefit from it.
“To apply that to the leader of what was then the largest monolithic gang in the nation would be a travesty,” says Safer, now in private practice. “And it would turn the intent of the legislation on its head. Larry Hoover did more to have the youth of Chicago incarcerated than the Chicago Police Department. He corrupted the youth. He planned the corruption of the youth of the city of Chicago.”
Justin Moore, one of Hoover’s attorneys, says Hoover has spent about a quarter-century housed “under a mountain” in the “worst prison in this country” with limited contact with loved ones. State prison would be a better place for him, according to Moore, who says he has visited Hoover close to 10 times and describes him as a gentleman who’s “slight in stature” and “very polite.”
“It makes you think that there’s something wrong with our penal system,” he says.
Safer says Hoover is an “extraordinarily talented and charismatic leader” and that “it would be a bad thing to have Larry Hoover back in the state system.”
Hoover’s former No. 2 associate in the gang, Gregory “Shorty G” Shell, also is seeking a sentence reduction under the First Step Act. In 1997, Shell was given life in federal prison for engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise from 1970 to 1995.
Shell previously served prison time on a murder conviction for killing a 61-year-old woman during a holdup in 1974. He was paroled in the early 1980s.
In the 1990s, Shell was dating Sonia Irwin, a Chicago cop who used money from the GDs to buy a South Side restaurant called June’s Shrimp, which became Shell’s gang clubhouse, according to prosecutors.
At the time, Hoover was housed in a state prison in southern Illinois, where he saw a steady stream of visitors.
In late 1993, prosecutors got a court order to put a transmitter in a visitor badge given to gang leaders who saw Hoover. They monitored the conversations of Hoover’s inner circle, allowing them to build a sweeping case against the gang leaders.
Dozens of gang members were convicted in the federal prosecution.
Hoover’s followers say he was prosecuted to stop his community-improvement movement, which he called Growth and Development after the initials of the gang. An affiliated political organization called 21st Century V.O.T.E. had put up candidates for office.
In August, William Edwards, one of the GD leaders convicted in the case, got his prison sentence reduced by Leinenweber under the First Step Act. His 100-year sentence was cut to 20 years, and he was freed.
“If someone is not chastened by the prospect of several decades in prison, then it is unlikely that he will be deterred by any additional time,” Leinenweber wrote. “The court is persuaded that Edwards can live a law-abiding life upon release.”
Edwards, 49, supervised about 600 Gangster Disciples members before he was promoted to the board of the gang, according to prosecutors .
In November, Leinenweber cut the life term he’d given Johnny “Crusher” Jackson, another top Hoover lieutenant, to 20 years, and Jackson was let out of prison.
Jackson, 47, was in charge of the GDs in the now-demolished Robert Taylor public housing high-rises along the Dan Ryan Expressway on the South Side. He was a member of the gang’s board and prosecutors said he visited Hoover in state prison at least 170 times.
In a letter to Leinenweber, Jackson said, “I am certainly not the man who stood before you in the courtroom nearly two decades ago when you sentenced me.”
He told the judge his son was murdered in Chicago, and “it is my hope to prevent others from experiencing the fate that was handed to me as a result of my mistakes or, even worse yet, the fate that ultimately ended the life of my son.”
Jackson provided the judge with a letter U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Illinois, wrote to President Barack Obama in 2016 in an unsuccessful bid got get Jackson’s sentence commuted.
After being told he would go free, Jackson told the judge he planned to move to Texas, where he had a job offer at a recreation center, working with children and elderly people, according to court records.