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Is county boot camp ‘irretrievably broken’?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
by Dave Gong

A lawmaker perhaps best known for efforts aimed at improving the criminal justice system in Illinois is now focusing his energy on Cook County’s boot camp program.

Rep. Dennis M. Reboletti, an Elmhurst Republican, wants to pass legislation that would eliminate what’s formally known as the Cook County Sheriff’s Vocational Rehabilitation Impact Center.

“(Some) judges have not been following the statutes,” Reboletti said, referring to regulations surrounding who is allowed to participate in the boot camp program. “There have been some judges who have sentenced some defendants to boot camp when they could not have possibly been sentenced there.”

The 45-year-old former prosecutor has had his successes — his first was adding salvia divinorum, a hallucinogenic herb, to Illinois’ list of banned substances in 2007. And he’s had his setbacks — his efforts to save capital punishment were thwarted, and his push to reinstate it hasn’t gained traction.

Now, Reboletti is focused on the boot camp program he describes as “irretrievably broken” due to improper sentencing of ineligible defendants.

The center is home to a court-ordered, four-month-long program for non-violent offenders. The program is based on discipline, educational skills and counseling as well as alcohol and substance abuse treatment. The vocational aspect of the program teaches computer recycling, gardening and carpentry.

Cara Smith, executive director of the Cook County Department of Corrections, said the proposal was “short-sighted.”

“The Sheriff’s Vocational Rehabilitation Impact Center program is incredibly important not only to Cook County but to the state prison system,” she said. “This program is specifically targeted to certain low-level offenders who would benefit from regimented incarceration and a community service program.”

But Reboletti said numerous oversights have allowed people convicted of violent crimes to end up in boot camp, though the program is meant for non-violent offenders. Other problems with the program, Reboletti said, include lax supervision — or, in some cases, none at all — of participants after completion.

“There has been a breakdown at every checkpoint in the system,” he said.

Smith said the sheriff’s office has increased both the supervision and custodial portions of the program.

“Everyone out in the community is electronically monitored,” she said. “They are also required to be in school or participating in community service programs.”

Wrongly sentencing ineligible defendants to boot camp has “drastic consequences,” Reboletti said, pointing to a 19-year-old who was convicted of armed robbery in 2007 and sentenced to boot camp. Less than a year and a half later, that person was implicated in a murder and is currently awaiting trial.

“It’s concerning that defendants can plead guilty (to violent crimes) and be sentenced to boot camp when that admonition would be inappropriate,” Reboletti said.

In response to Reboletti’s claim, Smith said improper sentencing was at one point an issue with the program — one which has since been rectified.

“In light of that, we have been working closely with the judiciary to make sure every defendant sentenced to the program is eligible,” she said.

Daniel M. Locallo, a retired Cook County Circuit Court judge who now handles mediations and arbitrations, said he was the first judge to sentence a defendant to the Cook County boot camp program.

Locallo contends there are three steps to fixing the problems Reboletti raised — the first, he said, would require judges to follow the law that dictates who is eligible to participate in boot camp.

The second step on Locallo’s list is to require specific sentencing orders that state the offense for which the defendant is being sentenced to boot camp and why the defendant is eligible.

The third step takes place at the sheriff’s office, Locallo said. Once the sentencing order reaches the Cook County sheriff, Locallo said the order should be scrutinized.

“If that person is not disposing of a crime that makes that person eligible, or the reasons are inappropriate for the purposes of boot camp, then I believe the sheriff will properly transfer that person back to court with an explanation of why they were rejected,” he said.

Circuit Judge Paul P. Biebel Jr., presiding judge of the Criminal Division, did not respond to requests for comment.

Rep. Michael J. Zalewski, D-Riverside, who is chief co-sponsor of the yet-to-be-introduced proposal, said it has become “abundantly clear” that the program “is not being used in a way that’s beneficial to the residents of Cook County” and that the program as it exists needs to be re-evaluated.

Zalewski, though, said he’s still open to considering ways to salvage the program.

“We need to decide who’s eligible for it, we need to make sure judges know who should get into the program and decide whether we’re doing enough to fund the program,” he said. “Admittedly, we probably have not been doing a good enough job funding the program.”

Additionally, Zalewski said, there is a definite need to make sure the Illinois criminal code is “protective of our citizens at large” and to give those who are incarcerated ample opportunity to avoid recidivism.

Rep. Ronald L. Sandack, R-Downers Grove, said he is aware of Reboletti’s proposal and has plans to speak with him on the issue, which will likely come before the House Judiciary Committee during the legislature’s spring session.

“I recognize there are significant problems (with the program),” Sandack said. “But I want a better understanding of whether this program can be saved or if it’s that bad that it needs to be completely terminated.”

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