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Hundreds of violent felons improperly getting Cook County boot camp

Friday, November 22, 2013
Chicago Sun-Times
by Frank Main

Denzel Simons, 19, a first-time felon, stood before Cook County Circuit Judge Diane Cannon facing six to 30 years in prison for robbing a man at his Southwest Side home.

There was no way he was supposed to get boot camp — a break reserved for young, nonviolent offenders.

A Sun-Times survey of thousands of pages of court records found that since 2006, Cook County judges have handed down hundreds of improper boot camp sentences to violent felons.

Simons’ case ended in tragedy.

Less than two years after he was sent to the four-month boot camp program, Simons was charged with murdering Kermit Delashment II, a 21-year-old college student with big dreams.

Delashment’s death was the 500th killing of 2008 in Chicago.

Had Simons been sentenced to prison instead of boot camp, it’s likely he would have still been behind bars at the time of the killing, law enforcement sources said. Cannon, though, argued Simons might have been out anyway if he had received the minimum prison sentence and gotten “good time” for behaving behind bars.

The victim’s father is left to wonder what might have been.

“If the judge had followed that particular statute, I might still have my son, and my kids might have their brother,” Kermit Delashment Sr. said. “He would have followed his dream. It is kind of hard to swallow.”

In an interview, the judge acknowledged: “I am sure I have given sentences that were not the letter of the law.”

“You got me,” she said.

Between 2006 and 2011, Cannon sent 13 inmates who’d been convicted of armed robbery to the boot camp at the Cook County Jail.

In all, 17 armed robbers got such a break during that period in Cook County.

After their release from the program, 12 of those 17 men were arrested for new crimes.

One is now awaiting trial for another armed robbery. Two went to prison for financial crimes. Nine were charged with less serious crimes. And Cannon sentenced another to 10 years in prison for violating the conditions of boot camp.

The other judges at the time who sent defendants to boot camp for armed robbery were Evelyn Clay, Lon Shultz and Marcus Salone. None returned calls seeking comment.

Chief Cook County Judge Timothy Evans would not comment.

Armed robbery is a Class X felony, and under state law, judges can’t hand out boot camp to those convicted of the crime.

The Sun-Times review of boot camp sentences also found about 150 people were in boot camp in 2012 and 2013 for simple robbery, burglary, residential burglary and aggravated battery resulting in great bodily harm — so-called “forcible felonies.”

Hundreds of other forcible felons were in boot camp between 2006 and 2011.

Veteran prosecutors and judges interviewed by the Sun-Times said state law prohibits boot camp for forcible felonies, too, even though they are less serious than Class X crimes. The law says the program is for young men, ages 17 to 35, with nonviolent offenses.

Elon Love, 19, was among the 33 forcible felons in the boot camp earlier this month. Love was convicted of robbing a 66-year-old man. He and an accomplice hit the man in the back of the head, knocked him to the ground and stomped his head before stealing $100, prosecutors said.

Sentencing such criminals convicted of violent crimes to boot camp is “stunning to me,” said John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association, a prison system watchdog. “I don’t understand why they would be doing that. The law is the law.”

He pointed to a 2002 study backed by the Justice Department that said the inmates at Cook County boot camp “are not accepted into the program if they are convicted of, or have a history of, violent or sexual crime.”

“They say the strength of the program is based on its screening process,” Maki said. “You don’t want to put offenders in there who are excluded by statute or dangerous.”

Cannon, a former prosecutor, isn’t known as a judge who routinely hands down light sentences. Indeed, court records show she often gives first-time offenders a chance, then drops the hammer when they blow it.

But she said that in light of the Sun-Times’ findings, she won’t sentence Class X offenders to boot camp in the future.

The boot-camp program — officially the Vocational Rehabilitation Impact Center — is on the jail campus near 26th and California. It’s meant to instill discipline and teach job skills. Inmates raise chickens, tend a vegetable garden and go to class.

“They are learning to shower every day, get up and go to school every day,” Cannon said. “A fraction of those people have GEDs — and when they get out, more than 50 percent of them get one. They participate in a carpentry program, counseling and anger management. Their graduation is the first graduation that 90 percent of those people have been to.”

Simons did not have the background of a hardened criminal. He was captain of the swim team at Julian High School and a Chicago Park District lifeguard. His accomplice, Christopher White, worked for the Chicago Park District and a Subway restaurant and was hoping to play basketball on a scholarship at San Francisco City College.

But in November 2006, Simons, 19, and White, 18, robbed a man at his home in Beverly on the Southwest Side. Both were armed with BB handguns.

Simons stuck his pistol in the man’s chest, and White clubbed him in the head with his gun before they fled with the man’s wallet. Cannon sentenced them both to boot camp in April 2007.

About 20 months later, just before Christmas 2008, Simons and another accomplice allegedly killed Kermit Delashment II during a bungled robbery.

Delashment — who earned a degree in computer science from Olive-Harvey College and planned to go on to Southern Illinois University — was fatally shot as he sat in the rear seat of a car parked at 91st and Yale near his home.

Simons was arrested in 2010 in Delashment’s killing. He and his co-defendant are awaiting trial on murder charges.

Delashment’s dad said his son played basketball in junior college and was a standout but was “under the radar” of scouts and recruiters.

That fall, his 6-foot-5 son attended an NBA tryout in St. Louis and got encouragement there from pro scouts, according to Kermit Delashment Sr.

Not long before he was killed, the younger Delashment thanked his father for pushing him to obtain his associate’s degree and attend the tryout.

“He was happy to have options,” his father said. “He could have gone to a Division I school, or maybe go pro.”

Delashment said the decision to sentence Simons to boot camp bothers him.

“The more that I have been thinking about it, I have become more and more angry about it, I really have,” he said. “Because I really feel like if you had just did what you’re on the bench to do, then we wouldn’t be here.

“Certainly in this case, [Simons] wouldn’t have even been involved in this incident.”

In response, Cannon said: “To say I feel awful for any loss of life is an understatement. But, as a judge, you can’t live in fear over future crimes. I don’t have a crystal ball.”

Prosecutors say they voice their objections in court when judges impose an improper sentence — as they did in Simons’ robbery case — but generally don’t appeal them.

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez is now rethinking whether to appeal those sentences if judges continue to hand them down and is also looking into whether additional legislation is needed. Her spokeswoman, Sally Daly, noted that the boot camp statute allows the Cook County sheriff to refuse to admit ineligible inmates.

But the sheriff’s office isn’t ready to challenge judges’ sentences, said Cara Smith, chief policy adviser for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. She said Dart feels his role is to screen inmates for whether they are mentally and physically fit for boot camp.

“The sheriff’s office is at a disadvantage because we are not in court,” Smith said. “We believe the judges and state’s attorney will look more closely at the eligibility of them being there.”

Maki, of the John Howard Association, said judges, the sheriff’s office and prosecutors need to take a hard look at the boot-camp program.

“What happened to this program?” he said. “If there is evidence that boot camp is not working, we need to fix it or throw it out.”



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