Illinois prisons are some of the most crowded in the country.
So Gov. Bruce Rauner put together a commission to get recommendations to reduce the prison population by 25 percent in the next decade.
The prison population, about 49,000 inmates in 2014, can be reduced if there’s a genuine shift in resources to drug treatment, mental health treatment, parole and probation monitoring and juvenile services, according to St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly, who serves on the commission.
The highest rise in new prison admittance was for violent crimes against persons and drug crimes.
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But it didn’t help Thomas Kelley, 27, of Belleville, who was sentenced earlier this week to seven years in prison for a non-violent drug felony.
Kelley, an admitted drug addict, could have been sentenced to 30 years in prison for producing methamphetamine in a house while a child was present. The child was a 1-year-old. The house was his mother’s house near Belleville. His charges carried a mandatory minimum prison sentence of six years.
But because the child was in the house near the detached garage where Kelley’s meth lab was, his charge was enhanced to a Class X felony. St. Clair County Chief Judge John Baricevic had no choice under sentencing guidelines. It was prison, not drug rehabilitation, for Kelley.
In cases where a defendant is selling drugs or causing a risk to the public, such as having a child present when meth is being made, treatment alone isn’t enough, prosecutor Kelly said.
“Mandatory minimums are absurd when applied to non-violent drug offenders,” said Thomas Kelley’s attorney, Alex Enyart, after the sentencing.
When the state won’t reduce the charges to allow for probation dependent on treatment, Enyart says it ties judges’ hands and adds non-violent drug offenders to a swollen prison population.
Prosecutors consider the total circumstances of the crime when charging and prosecuting drug offenses, Kelly said. If a person is an addict and possessing drugs for their use, then Kelly said prosecutors would likely opt for drug treatment instead of prison. But selling drugs, carrying a weapon while selling drugs or making drugs in the presence of children, Kelly said, are game changers.
“You can’t have sentencing reform at the expense of public safety. I believe that we can do both,” Kelly said.
In 2013, 21 percent of the state prison population was there because of drugs, according to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority. While violent crime rates and property crime rates have decreased, drug arrest rates have increased over the past 15 years. On Tuesday, it became clear Kelley would be joining the growing population, competing to get into drug treatment programs to address their addictions.
Assistant State’s Attorney Agnes Bugaj, who prosecuted Kelley, asked Baricevic on Tuesday to sentence him to 12 years in prison, citing a previous felony conviction and his dangerous conduct in cooking meth.
You can come out better or you can come out worse. That’s your choice. You can accept this as an opportunity. If you don’t, I suspect that I will continue to see you for as long as I am here.
St. Clair County Chief Judge John Baricevic
“This sentence is not trying to punish him for being an addict,” Bugaj said. “He was putting people at risk by cooking meth in his mother’s home. He made a decision that put people at risk.”
Kelley’s family argued that Kelley was using drugs to block out a painful past that laid the foundation for his addiction, and a long prison sentence would end Kelley’s hope for a sober and productive future.
Kelley began using drugs in his teens after his parent’s divorce. Kelley, his mother and his sister moved out of the family home and into a small trailer, his mother testified. Then, a remote-control car exploded at his feet, setting the trailer on fire.
Kelley was flown to a St. Louis hospital where he was put into a medically induced coma for 10 days, his father, Ronald Kelley, said.
After his release, the family moved to separate homes. Kelley went to live with his father, who noticed a change in the young man.
“Things did change after the fire,” Kelley’s stepmother, Pamela Kelley, told the judge. “I think he blamed himself. And he struggled.”
He began using marijuana, Ronald Kelley said. A year-and-a-half ago, his addiction turned to methamphetamine, said Thomas Kelley’s mother, Karen Kelley.
“I don’t think he knew what to do,” Karen Kelley told Baricevic. “He was so far in. He didn’t know where to turn.”
In May, a former girlfriend got angry at Thomas Kelley, called police and told them about the meth lab in the detached garage of Karen Kelley’s home.
“I wasn’t cooking it to sell. I was cooking it to maintain my high. I was never going to sell it,” Kelley told the judge. “I need treatment; I’m an addict.”
Because of the presence of Kelley’s sister-in-law’s 1-year-old child, the charge carried mandatory prison time. But Baricevic had to decide whether it would be the maximum of 30 years, 12 years as the state requested, or the minimum six years requested by Enyart.
“It’s obvious you have a problem. It’s also obvious that you have a family that loves you,” Baricevic said, adding they were “collateral damage” to Kelley’s addiction and impending prison sentence.
Baricevic told Kelley he could avail himself of opportunities in prison, such as college, vocational training and substance abuse treatment.
“You can come out better or you can come out worse. That’s your choice,” the judge said. “You can accept this as an opportunity. If you don’t, I suspect that I will continue to see you for as long as I am here.”
Kelley will get credit for the time he spent in the St. Clair County Jail. He is eligible to cut his prison sentence in half with good behavior.
“There is still light in him and when there is light, there is hope,” Enyart said.