Jurisprudence

Sorry, Drake and Kanye—a Benefit Concert Won’t Free Larry Hoover

Diptych of close-ups of Drake smiling and Kanye West in shades and headphones
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Brandon Magnus/Getty Images and Amy Sussman/Getty Images.

Drake and Kanye West are hosting a benefit concert on Thursday night to free former Gangster Disciples leader Larry Hoover from a federal supermax prison. The concert will stream on Amazon and in select IMAX theaters and will raise money for nonprofits focused on prison reform.

While the event will likely raise lots of money, some of which will go to great organizations like the Uptown People’s Law Center, it is unlikely to get Hoover out of prison. Hoover has both state and federal convictions, the former for a 1973 murder and the latter 1997 conviction for running a criminal enterprise in Chicago. While his federal conviction can technically be revisited under new federal criminal justice reforms, his state conviction has no such flexibility. Even if his federal conviction was commuted, he would be shifted to state prison to serve the remainder of his 200-year murder sentence.

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That means he can only gain freedom through a rare gubernatorial and presidential pardon.

Hoover’s case is unique because of the scale of his influence and his complicated history, but his plight highlights the all too common challenge of releasing people who have exhausted their appeals in court. Many federal prisoners are out of luck if they cannot be released under the narrow parameters of the First Step Act.

Recent momentum in the movement to “free Hoover” stems from the First Step Act, for which West advocated to former President Donald Trump. The 2018 law allows judges to resentence people with certain federal convictions, including people convicted of selling crack, as penalties for the crime have since been reduced to address racial disparities.

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Chicago has reduced sentences for federal prisoners under the First Step Act more frequently than other cities: 75 of 200 cases examined in a 2020 Chicago Sun-Times analysis ended with sentence reduction. Judge Harry Leinenweber, who handled Hoover’s original federal conviction and who oversaw his hearing earlier this year, has approved 10 petitions for sentence reductions under the First Step Act and rejected three.

But Leinenweber rejected Hoover’s bid for a resentencing earlier this year in a 19-page decision. Leinenweber was clear that Hoover should be made an example of, suggesting that commuting his sentence could somehow encourage others to follow in his footsteps. “To the extent that any one person can deter another to commit crimes, Hoover’s life imprisonment symbolically demonstrates that the rule of law reaches even those in power who seem untouchable,” Leinenweber wrote.

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The prosecutor who handled Hoover’s conviction agrees with Leinenweber’s sentiments, suggesting that releasing Hoover would be a miscarriage of justice. Prosecutors claimed that Hoover was single-handedly responsible for Chicago’s high murder rate in the 1970s and 1980s because of his leadership of the Gangster Disciples, one of several competing gangs of the era.

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This is absurd, but it’s also a sign that Hoover’s outsize influence is working against his efforts to get free. Hoover took the reins of the Gangster Disciples in the 1970s, after he had already been sentenced to 150 to 200 years for ordering a 1973 murder.

In 1987, Hoover and top lieutenants in the Gangster Disciples rebranded the organization as GD, for Growth and Development, and declared the organization was centered on community empowerment. In the ’90s, Hoover founded a community organization called 21st Century VOTE, whose membership consisted of former gang members. Among the group’s actions was a failed bid calling for Hoover’s parole in August 1993. The organization’s get-out-the-vote efforts earned Hoover political influence with Chicago aldermen and a former mayor, making him a celebrity behind bars and granting him the following he still enjoys today.

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Concurrently, Hoover was still apparently running the gang as a drug operation from prison, leading to a 1997 federal conviction after hours of recorded conversations from his prison cell were used by the prosecution.

Hoover’s followers believe his federal conviction was an attempt to suppress his political organizing. (Hoover’s defense chose not to address the substance of the evidence against him, and his attempts at appeal have focused on whether the government recorded his conversations legally.) His detractors believe Hoover’s “Growth and Development” turn was a ruse. But to Hoover, developing political power was the natural progression of any gang. “Every ethnic group, they start out with these street gangs, but as they mature they turn into something far more legitimate and something that could be a credit to the community,” he told the Chicago Reader in 1995.

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Because Hoover’s perceived influence has raised alarm among prosecutors, Hoover himself was uncomfortable with the Drake/Kanye concert, worrying it could hurt his chances of release, according to his son.

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Part of his discomfort may stem from the fact that getting a sentence commuted or vacated is exceedingly difficult and politically fraught. President Joe Biden, nearing a year in office, has yet to issue a single pardon, with nearly 17,000 outstanding petitions from federal prisoners collecting dust at the Department of Justice. And Biden seems uninterested in auditing the review process for clemency, which relies on the recommendations of judges and prosecutors to advance petitions. More importantly, a federal pardon from the president would not erase Hoover’s state murder conviction.

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Clemency or a pardon at the state level is unlikely too. Current Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has granted at least one commutation for a murder conviction, in a case where Gerald Reed stated he was beaten into confessing to a double homicide. This commutation led to some blowback, and commuting the sentence of Hoover, who led one of the largest gangs in Chicago history, would certainly engender much more.

Aside from gubernatorial action, revisiting the state’s sentence for Hoover’s murder conviction would be impossible without exculpatory evidence. Hoover has confessed to the murder and asked for forgiveness during his parole requests in the early ’90s. Unlike with the federal conviction, there’s no way to change long state sentences on the basis that they are severe. The First Step Act pertains only to the country’s 156,862 federal prisoners, not the 2 million people in state prisons and county jails.

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All this raises the question of what Hoover’s supporters, his son, Kanye, and Drake are hoping to achieve with tonight’s concert. Larry Hoover Jr. has said he hopes to build momentum for a pardon. Kanye, perhaps emboldened by his wife’s successful efforts to pardon prisoners under the previous president, is trying to repeat this success with Hoover, whom he idolizes for his community service.

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But one thing is clear: The event will be lucrative. Tickets were sold for between $200 and $1,000, according to the Source. The artists chose nonprofits focused on helping people return from prison, including Ex-Cons for Community and Social Change and Hustle 2.0. While it’s unfortunate that so much social responsibility for helping people who were incarcerated is outsourced by the state to nonprofits, the organizations can likely use the money. And regardless of whether Hoover’s case is improved or harmed by the ostentatious benefit concert, maybe there is hope that the millions of people currently incarcerated who have a lower profile than Hoover will get the resources they need to get free.

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