Column

Olson: Like other false reporters, Jussie Smollett was never going to prison

Actor Jussie Smollett talks to the media before leaving Cook County court after his charges were dropped Tuesday in Chicago.
Actor Jussie Smollett talks to the media before leaving Cook County court after his charges were dropped Tuesday in Chicago.

People make false police reports somewhat regularly in DeKalb County.

They do it to cover up the real reason why they lost their possessions, why they hurt themselves or even because they’re bored.

It's common for black men to be the villains in these tall tales.

A few years ago, I wrote about this phenomenon, and urged police to stop using race as the only means of identifying people who were suspects in crimes. What triggered outrage then was not that people were making up stories or wasting the police’s time while blaming minorities for it; it was that the newspaper would not identify crime suspects by their race.

When Jussie Smollett, a black actor in the cast of the Fox TV show “Empire,” told Chicago police in January that he’d been attacked by supporters of Donald Trump, the reaction was far different.

It turns out blaming violent crime on random black men is nothing compared with blaming it on the MAGA crowd.

Smollett told police that white guys in "Make America great again" hats put a noose around his neck and tossed bleach on him in an incident that somehow was not captured on any cameras.

It seemed fishy from the start. Since then, it’s become clear that he probably paid a couple of people to stage the attack.

The city is trying to recover the $130,000 it says it spent investigating the sensational claim. Good. Get it.

Yet the decision this week by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office not to prosecute Smollett has people furious. They’re so mad Smollett’s not going to prison that you’d think he framed their grandmother.

The thing is, Smollett was never going to prison. Not because he’s got some money or fame, but because people in his circumstances don’t go to prison. He’s a productive member of society, and disorderly conduct is a minor felony charge. It can be punishable by one to three years in prison, but probation is the most he’d have faced.

If we incarcerated first-time, low-level felons, our prisons would be even more crowded than they already are.

Of course, first they'd have to convict Smollett. That’s where he was helped by his status – he has means and connections. Good lawyers can make the pretrial process take years. They can get evidence tossed. Witnesses lose their memories.

In the end, Smollett might have pleaded guilty only to a misdemeanor, after expending even more public resources.

The maximum fine for a misdemeanor in Illinois is $2,500. In his deal with prosecutors, Smollett agreed to forfeit $10,000 in bail money and apparently did a couple of days of community service.

The way the Cook County State's Attorney's Office handled the case looks to have been shady, yes. But prison was not the endgame of this. People still would be angry.

Locally, false police reporters don't go to prison, either. We’ve written about several of these cases in recent years, and none of the half-dozen cases from DeKalb and Sycamore that I checked led to prison time, according to DeKalb County online court records. In some cases, there's no record at all, suggesting the offenders received supervision, or that the charges were dropped and later expunged.

I found a person who paid a $250 fine and was sentenced to public service, and another who was sentenced to a diversion program. Charges were dropped in at least one case, records show.

Those people essentially committed the same offense Smollett was charged with – disorderly conduct. Their phony claims usually lack the degree of showmanship and don't generate the same national attention, but in a way, they're more insidious.

When there’s a report of a gunpoint robbery in downtown DeKalb, we report it. When a violent crime is alleged that could affect students at Northern Illinois University, campus police send out a safety bulletin about it to thousands of people. We publicize them because the public must be aware.

When people make up stories about being attacked in spaces we inhabit every day, it makes the fear they inspire, both for our safety and of each other, more damaging.

Yet no one insists on a trial or a prison sentence for them.

• Eric Olson is general manager of the Daily Chronicle, another Shaw Media publication. Reach him at 815-756-4841, ext. 2257, email eolson@shawmedia.com or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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