I originally wrote this as a Facebook post and brought it over to the blog after I started it in May 2019.

Yesterday, Jason Van Dyke, convicted by a jury of his peers for second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery, was sentenced to just 6 3/4 years in prison for his crimes. With time off for behavior, he will likely get out in just over 3 years. I am far from an expert on this, but this sentence seems ridiculously short to me. My initial question when hearing the sentence was, “Is this the same sentence that your average offender receiving the same sentence would get?” So here’s my legal layman’s attempt to think through that.

Below, I included a graph from the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform. The graph shows the average sentence served in Illinois for various classes of felonies over the past several years. Second-degree murder is a Class 1 felony and aggravated battery is a Class 4 felony, in my understanding. On average in 2013, people who commited a Class 1 felony served 2.21 years and people who commited a Class 4 felony served 0.64 years. Multiplying it out, that means that an average person who commits one Class 1 felony and 16 Class 4 felonies should serve 12.45 years, compared to the 3.38 years that Van Dyke will likely serve.

I realize that judges have huge leeway in the sentences that they give, but what could be the reason for the apparent leniency that the judge gave Van Dyke? Could it be his status as a police officer? Could it be his whiteness?

In Van Dyke’s trial, a jury of 12 of his peers convicted him of one count of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery. They could see the serious nature of the crime because we finally had video evidence of the crime and they were willing to convict when they had that clear evidence. But when the sentencing decision was in the judge’s hands, and he had the same evidence to look at, he was lenient. In the conspiracy trial verdict the day before, when a judge had that same video evidence to look at, she said we could not know what was in officers’ minds regardless of what the video showed, and she let them go free.

Your average citizen on the jury was able to see guilt from the video, but the judges were not. As activist Will Calloway said after Thursday’s verdict, apparently the police code of silence and leniency extends throughout the justice system. And the representatives of that system–the police–are shown leniency–and those not favored by the system–black and brown citizens–are locked up.

What are we willing to do to to change this system in the name of racial equity and true justice?

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