Judicial flouting of law intolerable
It's not too much to require judges to follow the law; after all, they swear an oath to do so.
It's precisely because judges in Illinois have so much power and are generally viewed with great respect that they must do nothing to tarnish either their reputations or the reputation of the courts.
That requires that they conduct themselves in a respectful fashion — in other words, display the appropriate temperament — to lawyers and litigants and that they resist the temptation to act like kings who do as they please.
However, as the Chicago Sun-Times recently reported, some judges have not been able to resist the temptation. The newspaper reported that an undetermined number of Cook County judges routinely violate state law by ordering less serious penalties for convicted felons than state law allows.
Specifically, The Sun-Times reported that judges have been sentencing convicted felons to the state Corrections Department's boot camp program, even though the law did not authorize that penalty as a sentencing option.
The boot camp program — a relatively brief, discipline-teaching endeavor designed to get the attention of minor offenders — is a valuable program. But if state law does not prescribe boot camp as a sentencing option for certain categories of offenders, it's an outrage that judges ordered it anyway.
The Sun-Times' disclosure requires the attention of the Illinois Supreme Court and the Judicial Inquiry Board. Higher-ups in the criminal justice system who knew what was up and did nothing also should be held accountable.
The Sun-Times reports that since 2006 judges in Cook County have "handed down hundreds of improper boot camp sentences to violent felons."
One offender, Judge Diane Cannon, admitted her improper conduct.
"I am sure I have given sentences that were not the letter of the law. You got me," Cannon told The Sun-Times.
But it's not, as Cannon suggests, that the sentences she imposed were in technical violation of the law. They were in wholesale violation of state law.
Other judges implicated in this misconduct would not comment. In a sorry display of leadership, neither would Chief Cook County Judge Tim Evans.
And why did prosecutors acquiesce to this misbehavior? Their job is to enforce state law. It wouldn't have taken much to set the sentencing judges straight. All Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez had to do was to appeal an improper sentence, and it would have been reversed because there's no justification for judges ignoring state law.
But prosecutors simply ignored the judges' sentences, although now that she's been found complicit, Alvarez is rethinking her "no appeal" policy.
As is often the case, it took a tragedy to bring this problem to public light.
One of Cannon's boot camp defendants, Denzel Simons, served his four-month boot camp sentence, but apparently didn't learn much. He later shot and killed a 21-year-old college student during an armed robbery, and the victim's family is justifiably outraged because Simons should have been in prison rather than free to commit another crime.
Judge Cannon said she feels "awful" about the loss of life but said, "I don't have a crystal ball."
Once again, Cannon's effort to minimize her conduct won't fly. She didn't need a crystal ball to see the future. All she needed to do was follow the case.
This is a case of judges simply doing what they wish, willfully ignoring the law they swore to uphold. It's also a case of sleeping watchdogs. This kind of misconduct should not be ignored. It requires an investigation and, if the misconduct is confirmed, harsh penalties.