CHICAGO – After Harley Busse was convicted of stealing $44 in coins from a vending machine, the judge in his case noted that he had an “egregious” criminal history as a “career thief.”
Because “nothing up to this point has made an impression on you,” Cook County Judge Michael McHale said, “maybe my 12-year sentence will make an impression on you.”
But an appellate court has ruled that the sentence was “grossly disproportionate” to the offense and overturned it, cutting the term in half to six years.
While conceding that the original sentence was within statutory guidelines, the appellate ruling this week called the result “anomalous and absurd,” adding, “A paltry crime for a paltry sum does not warrant the unpaltry sentence of 12 years.”
It was July 2012 on the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago, UIC police Sgt. Jason Huertas testified, when he saw Busse leaving a campus building and recognized him because he’d warned him before about trespassing.
Police said they found Busse was carrying a wire clothes hanger inside his T-shirt, and 176 loose quarters inside a black briefcase he was carrying. A school coffee machine had been cleaned out of quarters, and surveillance video showed a man dressed like Busse in the vending area hallway, though his face wasn’t visible.
Police had seen Busse stealing change from the machines earlier that year and arrested him then as well.
Court records show Busse, 42, has been charged with about 50 criminal cases in Cook County dating to at least 1995.
Prosecutors asked for a “substantial sentence” based on his 28 convictions, all nonviolent, including felonies for burglary, attempted burglary and theft. He’d previously been sent behind bars 23 times, for up to six years at a time.
One of Busse’s brothers submitted a letter to the court offering him a job and noting that their mother was ill with leukemia. According to a presentence report, Busse’s father committed suicide when the boy was 11, but he graduated from high school and earned a paralegal certificate while in prison.
His assistant public defender noted that Busse had held about 20 jobs since he was 12 years old, most recently for a moving company, and asked for leniency.
Because the crime occurred at a school, the sentencing range was more severe, and because of Busse’s prior offenses, he was eligible for class X sentencing of six to 30 years.
Noting that incarcerating someone for 12 years would cost almost a quarter-million dollars, lawmakers should consider reserving class X for violent offenders, not petty thieves, Justice Michael Hyman wrote in his majority opinion.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Mary Anne Mason supported the original sentence, noting that Busse denied the crime and showed no remorse, and “is likely to re-offend, just as he has consistently for the past 20 years.”
Busse’s older brother Bruce Busse, who lives in the western suburbs, was relieved by the ruling. He said that his brother typically stays in homeless shelters and that the family helps out by paying for hotels or inviting him for dinner.
His brother could benefit from job training, he said, but after prison, he has become a loner who does what he wants.
“It’s unfortunate because here’s a guy who has nowhere to really go,” he said. “I watched him do this numerous times. He . gets overwhelmed and doesn’t have any support.”
Prosecutors could appeal the ruling and said they are reviewing it. With more than half his sentence served and credit for good behavior in prison, officials said, Busse could be released from Taylorville Correctional Center as soon as the case is resolved.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.