Convicted burglar held in prison nearly five months too long
Friday, June 05, 2015
by Steve Mills and Todd Lighty
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."
Spokeswomen for the Illinois Department of Corrections and Brown's office offered conflicting accounts of how Erkins remained in prison long past his release date.
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.
With his conviction for a Class 2 felony, Erkins was supposed to be given a day of credit for each day he served, meaning he should have spent 18 months in prison. In imposing the sentence, Judge Lawrence Flood credited Erkins for serving a combined 337 days — the time he had been held in Cook County Jail or a juvenile facility while awaiting trial as well as credit for taking part in a GED program, according to a transcript of his sentencing hearing.
Flood, who works at the Leighton Criminal Court Building, declined to comment on the case.
Erkins was transferred to the Northern Reception and Classification Center at Stateville Correctional Center, the first stop for incoming inmates in the northern part of the state. He carried papers with him from Cook County court that documented his conviction and the terms of his sentence.
At Stateville, his projected release date was listed on paperwork as Dec. 28, 2014. But a handwritten notation referred to one of Erkins' two burglary convictions as the "non-controlling case." That suggested that Erkins' other conviction would be the deciding factor on his length of stay in prison.
And indeed that is what officials at Stateville determined a month later, according to a handwritten note on a second form calculating the time Erkins would serve. A release date of Dec. 5, 2015, was then set. That was nearly a year after his correct release date. The form gave no credit for the time Erkins had been in custody.
Erkins said he tried to tell Stateville officials of the error, but that they were not interested.
"Stateville wouldn't give me a chance to talk with them," he said.
Keith Ahmad, Cook County's first assistant public defender, whose office represented Erkins, said the clerk's office could have made the documents clearer by entering the credit for time served Erkins was due on both of his sentencing orders. But he questioned why prison officials did not apply Erkins' time served to both burglary convictions. Doing that, Ahmad said, would have eliminated the risk of a problem.
"Why would you pick the case with no credit to be the controlling case?" he asked. "That takes away the client's credit."
Wilson, the prison spokeswoman, said officials could not assume that the credit for time served applied to both of Erkins' sentences.
"We have to make calculations based on clear orders," she said. "We can't make assumptions."
From Stateville, Erkins was transferred to the Robinson prison, a minimum-security facility about 225 miles south of Chicago.
Last August, Erkins sent the first of a series of letters to Brown's office, pleading with her staff to correct his release date and to send the proper paperwork to Robinson. Erkins said family members also called Brown's office on several occasions without success.
In November, with the help of another inmate, Erkins filed a motion before Judge Flood. He asked him to clear up the confusion in his sentencing order, writing that "there appears to be a clerical error concerning my judgment order," according to the motion.
According to court records, Flood corrected the sentencing order on Jan. 30. Erkins received a Feb. 11 letter from Brown's office with the corrected order attached. In Erkins' file with the clerk's office, a new corrections computation sheet gave him additional credit for time served — the time he had been in state prison. That sheet, however, again had a handwritten note saying it was for a "non-controlling" count.
That meant it did not help Erkins.
That same day, apparently unaware the judge had issued the new sentencing order, Erkins wrote to the clerk's office.
"There still seems to be great confusion" at the prison, he wrote. "I am currently being held past my release date."
He added that he had served his time and should be released immediately.
Erkins said he continued to write to the clerk's office and pester records clerks at the prison. Still, he was not released.
The confusion continued.
Wilson said Thursday that prison officials "reached out to Cook County officials on several occasions to resolve the issue." On May 19 the prison received yet another sentencing order, though Strong said the clerk's office had no record of such an order.
Erkins was in his cell the next morning when a prison official told him he was being released. He was driven to a train station and given a ticket home.
No one, he said, explained what had happened.