A Weak Link in the Chain of Justice
By Michael Kleen
Published August 8, 2012 at Rock River Times
Previously, I have written about Rockford’s out of control crime rate, what can be done about it, and who deserves the blame. My columns have, so far, focused on one aspect of law enforcement: the police who currently serve as our first line of defense. I have written about how inept politicians have chosen to deprioritize local law enforcement in their budgets, and how bureaucrats have tied the hands of police when it comes to combating street crime. This, however, is only one side of the story.
There is only so much the police can do to keep dangerous criminals off the streets. They can arrest criminals as many times as they want, but without the support of tough, competent prosecutors and an efficient court system, their efforts will have a limited effect. In Winnebago County, the chief prosecutor is State’s Attorney Joe Bruscato. Mr. Bruscato’s office has a less than stellar record when it comes to keeping repeat offenders behind bars.
The case of accused murderer Melvin J. Perkins is a good illustration of how, despite adequate police work, the bungling of the State’s Attorney’s office can put a repeat offender back on the streets and endanger the public. For Sandra Golden, who Perkins has been charged with stabbing to death, too many second chances ended in tragedy.
Melvin Perkins had a long history of domestic violence convictions. He was charged four different times over a span of four years and three months, first in March 2006, then in January 2007, again in May 2007, and finally in May 2010. After the third conviction, they should have thrown the book at him. Instead, he was allowed to walk free to reoffend. Two years later, a woman is dead. Here is how it happened.
Perkins pled guilty to his first domestic battery on June 8, 2006 and was placed on probation for one year. While on probation, he was charged with a second domestic battery. He pled guilty on January 16, 2007 and was sentenced to two years of probation. Less than four months later, he was charged with domestic battery again. This time, he was sentenced to 18 months of probation, despite being a repeat offender who had violated probation twice before.
Perkins violated his probation again and was given 90 days in jail. On May 10, 2010, he was charged with his fourth domestic battery. This is where State’s Attorney Bruscato’s office dropped the ball. According to Illinois law, Perkins’ third and fourth domestic battery charges should have been felonies. For some reason, Bruscato only charged him with a misdemeanor for the fourth offense. Perkins was sentenced to just 18 days in jail and two years of probation. If properly charged, he would have been eligible for a maximum of six years in prison.
Sandra Golden was 16 when she moved from Chicago to Rockford. Five years later, in July 2012 at the age of 21, she was stabbed multiple times with a knife in a home on the 500 block of Horsman Street. She died at the hospital the next day. Police said the stabbing was “domestic related,” and Melvin Perkins was arrested and charged with the crime. Perkins allegedly committed this crime while he was out on probation.
As the chief prosecutor for the county, it is the State’s Attorney’s responsibility to see that criminal cases are handled properly. This is not a responsibility to be taken lightly, since as we have seen, the proper prosecution of a crime can mean the difference between life and death for some unsuspecting future victim. We should be a just society, and a forgiving society. At a certain point, however, it should be clear that an individual inclined to certain behavior—particularly violent behavior—needs to be punished and separated from society for the purpose of preventing any further harm.
Far too often in this city, repeat offenders are let back onto the streets with a slap on the wrist. All the police can do is continue to arrest them for the same offense, time and time again. A judge and jury can only act on the information presented to them. It is up to the State’s Attorney to see that offenders are charged properly, and if incarceration is warranted, make a compelling case for that sentence.
For the justice system to work properly, it must be a solid chain, from the cop on the street corner, to the judges and juries in the court room, to the county’s chief prosecutor. There cannot be any weak links. It is clear that we have a long way to go before Rockford’s streets are safe again, but electing a competent prosecutor in November would be a good start.