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Broken Justice System: 12 Years for 176 Quarters




The case of Harley Busse, a homeless man, proves that our American system of justice is broken.

Busse was sentenced in 2012 to 12 years for stealing 176 quarters ($44) from a vending machine at the University of Illinois–Chicago campus. He used, as he has done in the past, a bent coat hanger to remove the quarters. He was caught by a campus police officer, who knew him from past vending-machine thefts.

Busse was a habitual offender of petty thefts. He had a criminal record of 28 convictions and was imprisoned on 23 occasions. Since the age of 12, he has held no fewer than 20 jobs, but was unable to hold onto any of them. Before this major crime, he was homeless.

Cook County Judge Michael B. McHale, stated that the facts of the offense were not “particularly egregious” but emphasized to Busse, “Nothing up to this point has made an impression upon you, maybe my 12-year sentence will make an impression on you…”

Because the crime was committed at a school, and since he had a lengthy record, the judge was required under Illinois’s sentencing laws to sentence him as a repeat offender. The maximum was 30 years, and the court ordered 12 years.

The case was appealed and the appellate court described the sentence as “absurd.”

The Illinois appellate court stated last week in its opinion, “A paltry crime for a paltry sum does not warrant the unpaltry sentence of 12 years. We hold that the trial court did abuse its discretion in sentencing Busse, and we impose a six-year sentence…”

The appellate court stated, “Twelve years of imprisonment is grossly disproportionate to the offense of stealing $44 in loose change from a vending machine. Busse did not ‘break in’ to the UIC building; he apparently walked inside during the middle of the day. Busse was not armed and did not use a weapon of any sort. No UIC students were threatened or harmed during his theft. He did not even damage the vending machines. It is difficult to conceive of an argument that Busse deserves 12 years in prison due to the seriousness of his offense.”

Justice Michael B. Hyman stated in the majority opinion, “Judges must keep in mind that poverty is not a crime; it is a condition, and every day presents a struggle for the poor to survive, to cope, to get by until tomorrow.”

Judge Hyman continued, “This is unjust, not just to Busse, but to a public that will see this sentence and feel no confidence that our criminal justice system knows how to distinguish between a dangerous criminal and a homeless man who loots vending machines with a wire hanger…”

Unfortunately, the appellate court reduced his sentence from 12 years to 6 years. The court was bound by the Illinois sentencing laws. The appellate opinion concluded that legislatures need to distinguish between offenders who commit violent crimes and those whose crimes are petty.

Harley Busse was no Jean Valjean (Les Misérables), but he also was not Jack the Ripper. 12 years and six years were not just or reasonable sentences for theft of 176 quarters. The Busse case exemplifies why the United States has the most inmates and prisons in the world.

By: Bradley Schwartz
Founder of

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