My adoring throng knows that whenever I start a story with a slew of stipulations, it’s going to get very interesting very quickly. With that in mind, let’s move forward.
First, let me be perfectly clear that putting on the black dress is one of the most difficult propositions on the planet. That inherent stress doesn’t excuse those predominantly bad Kane County judges, but it does explain why so many of them aren’t up to the task.
And that gig is especially hard on new judges. Suddenly you’re no longer an advocate. Now you hold the defendant’s fate completely in your hands, you have to objectively interpret all manner of law and precedent, and if you get it wrong and somebody gets hurt or dies as a result, there’s nowhere to hide.
Furthermore, considering how the capacity to post bond disproportionally affects minorities, I understand why the Illinois legislature just authorized a brand-new bond statute. This one requires the courts to consider the specific circumstances of a defendant, such that those who don’t pose a threat or flight risk won’t rot in jail waiting for the disposition of their case.
And I agree with that reform-minded logic for the following reasons:
1. In an absurd turn, the Circuit Clerk gets to keep 10 percent of any bond amount even if the defendant prevails. That sounds fair, right? And that kind of highway robbery is particularly onerous for the economically disadvantaged.
2. Minorities bear the brunt of Kane County arrests and being held until trial affects them far more than most white folks through fallout like job loss. That means they’re far more likely to take a quick plea deal regardless of innocence or guilt.
3. Why should a non-violent offender sit in jail when they’re not a flight risk? The cost to the taxpayer is staggering.
But the key term in our three-point analysis is “non-violent offender.”
Especially in light of the still-raw Aurora mass shooting, I was more than stunned when a source told me about the Keyshaune Steele case. Steele, an 18- or 19-year-old Elgin resident, is facing the following charges:
- Possession of a stolen firearm – a class 2 felony
- Two counts of aggravated unlawful use of a firearm – both class 4 felonies
- Reckless discharge of a weapon – a class 4 felony
- Unlawful possession of ammunition – a class A misdemeanor
Apparently, Mr. Steele had a really bad day.
But that didn’t stop brand new Elgin Branch Court Judge, Julia Yetter, from RORing him or releasing him on his own recognizance. To put that in perspective, the bond for my most recent bogus misdemeanor charge was seven grand while Mr. Steele, with his four felony counts, simply walked out of the courtroom.
Please also allow me to stipulate that Steele is utterly innocent until a judge or jury determines otherwise. Also, I don’t know what, if any, bond the State requested.
To put this in perspective, I spoke with a Collar County judge and a couple of criminal defense attorneys.
The judge told me that, while ROR is unusual for this set of circumstances, if the defendant has no prior record, and/or they’re turning state’s evidence, it’s not unheard of for a judge to keep them out of jail.
And Mr. Steele, indeed, has no obvious priors in Kane County. But I say “obvious” because any previous juvenile record would be sealed. More than one local attorney has privately railed against judges who, though they have access to that juvenile record, believe that magical 18th birthday suddenly wipes that slate clean.
I don’t know if Mr. Steele has a juvenile record, but considering the current charges, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if he did.
As far as Steele helping the State’s Attorney, I have very good reason to believe he’s not turning state’s evidence.
The first defense attorney was equally surprised by the ROR. He said he would expect at least a $50,000 bond, which means the defendant would have to come up with $5,000 to be released. The second lawyer concurred.
Again, Judge Yetter is the newest member of that exclusive 16th Circuit club having been sworn in last December. And while any difficult job requires a breaking in period, the expectation when you don the black robe is, through your vast legal experience, you’ll hit the ground running.
To wit, Yetter has a stellar curriculum vitae, the highlight of which was serving as a well-regarded DuPage and Kane County public defender. And as we’ve previously discussed, the PD gig is as tough as it gets. But according to a statistically insignificant number of sources, she may not be quite up to the judicial job.
That said, I’m not willing to make a final pronouncement at this early stage, and she’s exactly the kind of individual who should be able to recover from a rocky start. But the fact that Mr. Steele still walks the streets of Elgin should make you very nervous.
It certainly bothers me. Let’s hope Judge Yetter improves quickly!