Jim Dey: Illinois federal judge rapped for lenient sentencing

Jim Dey: Illinois federal judge rapped for lenient sentencing

When U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin announced his support for St. Clair County lawyer Staci Yandle to become a federal judge in 2014, he bragged that she was "an excellent candidate for the federal bench in southern Illinois."

"She will bring a wealth of knowledge and litigation experience to the position. I am pleased that President Obama has nominated her," Durbin said.

He also was happy with the diversity Yandle, a graduate of the University of Illinois and Vanderbilt law school, would bring to the court, a key factor in his decision that drew approving coverage from news organizations like the Huffington Post.

The news outlet celebrated the nomination of a "black lesbian judge" to preside at the federal courthouse in Benton, located in deep southern Illinois.

Yandle has kept mostly a low profile since the Senate confirmed her. But she recently drew headlines that Durbin has to hope few people see.

That's because a curious decision by Yandle was the subject of one of the most severe beatdowns that an appeals court can deliver.

Writing in almost disbelieving terms, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago set aside the probation sentence Yandle gave to a career criminal — Skylar D. Henshaw — who was facing a long prison term. The appeals court sent the case back to Yandle for re-sentencing.

In doing so, the three-judge panel concluded her probation sentence was "substantively unreasonable."

Sentencing decisions are based on a variety of statutory factors as well as the history and character of individual defendants.

Henshaw's history was impressive only to the extent of his repeated criminal behavior.

When he was arrested in 2015 during a cocaine buy, Henshaw had $3,100 in his possession and another $55,000 plus marijuana and ecstasy pills at his residence.

He minimized his role in the cocaine sale, explaining that he accompanied the real dealer, Corey Pryor, "merely to test the cocaine for Pryor." But Henshaw acknowledged to authorities that he owed Pryor "$30,000 for 30 pounds of marijuana."

Further, at the time of his arrest, Henshaw was serving two separate sentences of conditional discharge — a form of probation that does not require reporting to authorities.

One stemmed from a conviction for selling 2 pounds of marijuana and the other for delivering over 500 grams of cocaine.

In addition, Henshaw had two prior convictions.

In one of those cases, the appeals-court justices noted, "his probation was revoked twice," once for testing positive for marijuana and once for unlawful possession of marijuana.

Henshaw's multiple convictions qualified him for "career offender" status, requiring a sentence ranging from 151 to 188 months, or about 12.5 to 15.5 years. Henshaw's lawyer suggested that was too harsh, arguing that a sentence of four years and nine months was more appropriate.

So when Yandle ordered five years of probation, the defense was stunned, and the prosecution was angry.

In imposing the sentence, Yandle acknowledged that past probation sentences had not been Henshaw's "strong card" and that he had repeatedly shown "a lack of respect for the law."

But she took a lenient approach because of what she called Henshaw's "stupid and boneheaded" decision to participate in the cocaine buy, his family circumstances and the harsh nature of career-offenders guidelines.

Yandle said she wanted to give Henshaw "an opportunity to rebound from this mistake."

The stunned appeals panel — Appellate Judges Michael Kanne and Ilana Rovner and, sitting by designation, U.S. Judge Thomas Durkin — noted that sentencing judge's decision required a thorough explanation that she did not provide and that, on its face, probation made no sense.

"It is difficult to see how a sentence of probation could be expected to deter a defendant who has not in the past been deterred by probation," the appeals court wrote.

Further, the appeals court said Yandle's characterization of Henshaw's conduct as "stupid and boneheaded" was inaccurate, that the record showed Henshaw's actions were "part of an ongoing pattern of drug dealing."

In giving probation, Yandle stated she was giving Henshaw an "opportunity to rebound" that might be "the first opportunity you ever had in your life."

Not true, said the appellate court. Henshaw had "multiple other opportunities to rebound through lenient sentences" and he continues "to commit crimes."

The appeals court noted judges like Yandle have "plenty of discretion" when imposing sentences. But it concluded that Yandle's surprising decision represented an abuse of her prerogatives.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.

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rsp wrote on February 08, 2018 at 10:02 am

Given his history he should have already served time.

wayward wrote on February 08, 2018 at 10:02 am

Funny, when you've written about straight white male judges getting in trouble, you haven't felt the need to write about their race or sexual orientation.

BruckJr wrote on February 08, 2018 at 2:02 pm


GLG wrote on February 08, 2018 at 1:02 pm

     Liberal Obama appointed judge!  Why is anyone supprised by the probation?


     This guy was bad penny that kept comming back!

      Hey Jim, how about an indepth report of CCSA Reitz and her "Non Charging"

       and endless probation for violent criminals in Champaign County! At least the 

       case got charged in Benton!