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Convicted burglar held in prison nearly five months too long

Friday, June 05, 2015
Chicago Tribune
by Steve Mills and Todd Lighty

Malik Erkins

Malik Erkins
Zbigniew Bzdak, Chicago Tribune
Malik Erkins, 18, now lives in an apartment in Chicago Heights. He was held in prison months after he was supposed to be released because of an apparent paperwork error.
Malik Erkins, 18, now lives in an apartment in Chicago Heights. He was held in prison months after he was supposed to be released because of an apparent paperwork error. (Zbigniew Bzdak, Chicago Tribune)

When Malik Erkins went to prison last June for breaking into two cars, he knew his exact release date: Dec. 28, 2014.

But that date came and went with the Chicago Heights teenager still behind bars, fighting for his freedom.

An apparent combination of paperwork errors and bureaucratic glitches kept Erkins locked up until mid-May — nearly five months late — when he was released from the downstate Robinson Correctional Center.

Erkins, who readily admits committing the two break-ins, had no problem doing the prison time he deserved. Serving more than his sentence, though, was maddening.

"It sucks," Erkins, now 18, said in a recent interview at his home. "There was no reason I had to spend an extra five months of my life in prison."

The mixup on Erkins, which the Tribune analyzed through prison and court records, is a product of a complex and sometimes archaic criminal justice system that, at many stages, continues to rely on handwritten documents for thousands of defendants who wend their way through the Cook County courts and enter Illinois prisons each year.

Indeed, the office of Dorothy Brown, Cook County's circuit court clerk, has been frequently criticized for its lethargic pace of modernization.

What's more, Erkins' case reflects a system susceptible to human error, one that seems to reflexively turn aside pleas from prisoners. Erkins repeatedly wrote to Brown's office and filed motions with the court seeking his release. He also said he asked records staff at Robinson Correctional to acknowledge that he should be freed, all to no avail.

When he was finally set free, he said he was given about $30 he had in his prison account, another $10 and a train ticket home.

"All they told me was that they fixed my papers and that I was getting out," Erkins said. "They didn't say sorry or nothing like that."

Nicole Wilson of IDOC said officials determined Erkins' release date based on documents from Cook County that Erkins brought with him when he arrived to begin serving his sentence. They had no control over how long he served and followed standard procedure in figuring it out.

"If there's a mistake in that, it's not IDOC's responsibility," she said. "We can't correct it. We have to calculate (prison) time based on the orders we receive, and that's what we did. We followed proper protocol and followed the orders we had."

Jalyne Strong, Brown's spokeswoman, said the clerk's office sent the correct sentencing paperwork to the corrections department.

We didn't screw up any paperwork," Strong said. "It appears the issue is with the correctional facility. They made the error. It was a breakdown on their part."

Erkins, who had a juvenile record, was arrested Sept. 1, 2013, after Chicago police spotted him and another teen walking in the 1500 block of South Avers Avenue in the Lawndale neighborhood with a GPS device, a camera and other items. Erkins and the second suspect, then 19, admitted to the officers that they had broken into two cars and stolen the items, apparently to pawn, according to court records. Both were taken into custody, and Erkins remained locked up.

On June 5, 2014, Erkins pleaded guilty to two counts of burglary as part of a deal in which he would be sentenced to three years in prison on both counts. According to the deal, the sentences would run at the same time, or concurrently, instead of one after the other, or consecutively.

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