A. Sage Smith

A. Sage Smith, a C-number prisoner serving an indeterminate sentence for murder at Menard, was finally paroled in 2003 after 30 years of incarceration.

Considered a model prisoner by virtually every measure, Smith doggedly pursued the academic opportunities then being offered to Illinois prisoners, earned his certification as a paralegal, and became an accomplished law clerk, as well. He was also a prison librarian and a dedicated volunteer promoting literacy among his fellow inmates, and worked in AIDS prevention programs throughout his incarceration. Nonetheless, his applications for parole were denied 15 times.

Smith’s fate might still be limbo were it not for a lawyer who was a volunteer from the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty, whose unswerving dedication led her to make a compassionate and persuasive presentation on his behalf at his 16th parole hearing. Smith never doubted her sincerity, but was surprised by her tenacity. And while his hope may have seemed but a glimmer, his chances slim, he regained his freedom with her invaluable help just over a year after the two had met.

After his release, Smith continued his work with attorneys and paralegals at the Center on Wrongful Conviction at Northwestern University’s School of Law, the premier program of its kind in the nation. As Director of Client Services, he oversees the processing of over 200 requests for counsel every month. He evaluates each case on the basis of standardized criteria (complete innocence is considered essential), vets each case through careful investigation of applicants’ claims — both in his office and in the field — and makes his recommendations. Since it is a clinical process within the law school, he often finds himself accompanying students in neighborhoods they might otherwise find intimidating or even dangerous. He considers it a way of honoring the volunteer attorney to whom he owes so much for her single-minded work toward securing his own release from Menard.

Smith not only works for the struggling individual, but for the community at large, primarily through an organization called the Positive Anti-Crime Thrust (PACT). According to Smith’s analysis, 57 percent of all released prisoners return to the same six or seven crime-ridden neighborhoods in the Chicago area, and without the opportunity for education, most will return to the old friends and ways that got them into trouble in the first place. So he is working to provide educational resources to those at risk in those communities. “It becomes entrenched,” he says, “and if the public doesn’t become more involved, it’s just a vicious cycle.” He believes broad paradigmatic change is essential, and is out to spearhead the effort to make it happen. “So many people are affected by crime, from all parts of society,” he explains. “I bring a different perspective to the whole question, and I want to provide solutions.”

Another major step is the consultancy practice he designed to bridge the gap between former prisoners and employers. Getting a job is, of course, essential to ex-prisoners’ successful reentry, but even the most liberal employers are often reluctant to hire them. And many have strict policies against hiring anyone with a violent crime on their record. Smith knows as well as anyone the importance of breaking down this barrier.

Despite his tireless efforts and his formidable mission, Smith’s humility emerges when he talks about his role: “At my age (65), I’m not on a career path,” he says. “ My goal is to just stay involved and to put something on the table for my grandson before I check out of here.”