Courtwatchers is a group of citizens who volunteer to attend criminal proceedings by request of the defendant,a family member or a concerned party. We are there as witnesses to criminal justice in Champaign County, to figure out how it actually works, and we are learning more about our local system all the time.
Last year we received a request to observe the case of a poor, disabled woman of color who was being vigorously prosecuted by the State of Illinois for fraud. By involving the community, Courtwatch was able to facilitate a positive outcome.
The courtroom can most certainly be an intimidating place, especially for persons without sufficient means and supports. We were introduced to a woman who had endured debilitating hardships throughout her life and yet still displayed a smile. She was a survivor of violent attacks which had left her wheelchair-bound and suffering many related physical and emotional challenges. With no immediate family support she was struggling to navigate her legal options.
Her public defender was initially baffled as to the reluctance of the State to offer a reasonable plea deal given the relatively minor nature of her alleged offense and her lack of a significant criminal history. We learned she was being prosecuted by a special prosecutor from the Illinois Attorney General’s Office. She was evidently caught up in a state investigation searching for significant fraud. The intensity of the prosecution appeared equal to that given to high-level sophisticated violators. Her fairly insignificant crime seemed to be portrayed as that of a serious offender being brought down by the State. In keeping with their aggressive stance, the Attorney General’s Office had filed charges to preclude any sentence that did not include mandatory time in prison.
The severity of her prosecution was troubling to behold. The State’s apparent disregard of her history as a victim of violence, with the resulting physical and emotional challenges, the potential worsening of her health if she was incarcerated, and the nonviolent nature of the alleged offense all left us wanting to act. We sought to have her charges decreased and in doing so remove the restriction of mandatory prison time. We shared her story with local churches and community groups. We obtained numerous signatures on petitions from citizens requesting that the State refrain from its harsh prosecution, which we sent to the Office of the Attorney General’s Special Prosecutor.
Although the State denied that the petitions had any influence, the charges were lowered and she was released from the mandatory minimum juggernaut. Now the judge could have flexibility in sentencing. The punishment could range from probation to prison; however, it would be decided by considering the totality of the evidence, her life circumstances and her rehabilitative potential. The judge’s hands would not be tied by the previously restrictive charges.
With the mandatory prison time off the table, she chose to plead guilty to the lesser offense and take responsibility for her debt and any assessed fines. She and her public defender were hopeful that the judge would be merciful when considering her medical needs, personal history and the non-violent nature of her crime. We continued our support by submitting letters to the judge requesting a home-based sentence which would allow her to pay her debts while remaining in the community.
When the day of her sentencing arrived she was heartened to have many Courtwatchers in the courtroom to support her. The State’s prosecutor continued to argue for prison time and attempted to minimize her health as a mitigating factor. The judge chastised the prosecution for disregarding her physical realities. He noted the strong community supports, acknowledging the letters and the people who were present on her behalf. She was granted a probationary sentence. She would be allowed to remain within the community while repaying her debts.
She was relieved and thankful. We were all grateful that the public voices had been recognized and true justice had prevailed.