Camile Lindsey, chief of staff for the state Department of Corrections, said in an email that Van Dyke was released at 12:15 a.m. Thursday from the Taylorville Correctional Center, in central Illinois.
Van Dyke, who is white, had been in custody since he was convicted of second-degree murder and aggravated battery for the October 2014 shooting death of McDonald, who was armed with a knife as he walked away from the officer. Van Dyke served less than half of his sentence of six years and nine months, securing an early release for behaving well in prison.
Van Dyke leaves prison at a tenuous time for the city and its police force.
Activists and family of McDonald have called for Van Dyke to be charged federally and condemned his early release.
McDonald’s grandmother and aunt held a press conference last week at Saint Sabina Church, asking the Department of Justice to file federal civil rights charges against Van Dyke.
"It just reinforces this feeling of hopelessness in African American communities, and reinforces the thought that police can continue their oppressive behavior in those communities and be either exonerated or given light sentences," said Chico Tillmon, a senior research fellow at the University of Chicago Crime Lab and a former gang member.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement Thursday there is much work to be done to heal from the murder of McDonald.
"I know some Chicagoans remain disheartened and angry about Jason Van Dyke’s sentence for the murder of Laquan McDonald. As I said at the time, while the jury reached the correct guilty verdict, the judge’s decision to sentence Van Dyke to only 81 months was and remains a supreme disappointment. I understand why this continues to feel like a miscarriage of justice, especially when many Black and brown men get sentenced to so much more prison time for having committed far lesser crimes. It’s these distortions in the criminal justice system, historically, that have made it so hard to build trust," the statement reads.
The shooting of the Black teenager by a white officer eventually led to a court-ordered consent decree that resulted in several reforms, including the creation of a civilian-led police oversight board and new rules governing investigations into police shootings. And after the city refused to release the police video of McDonald’s killing for more than a year and only did so after being ordered to by a judge, it now must release such videos within 60 days.
Van Dyke's conviction marked the first time in roughly half a century that a Chicago police officer was found guilty of murder for an on-duty killing.
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx responded to Van Dyke’s release by saying the sentence did "not meet the crime" and encouraging new charges on the federal level.
"If there’s an ability to do something about it on the federal level, then, by all means, something should be done," Foxx said in a statement Thursday.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said, "We are again forced to reckon with this gross miscarriage of justice and the pervasive inequities built into our criminal justice system."
"While Van Dyke being convicted at all was a step in the right direction, his short sentence is at odds with the thousands of Black and Brown people behind bars for nonviolent offenses," Preckwinkle said in a statement. "And in the years following Laquan’s murder, we have lost more young Black and Brown men at the hands of police. I pray for peace for the McDonald family today and remain resolved to creating a criminal justice system that is truly fair and just."
Van Dyke, who was beaten by inmates at a federal prison in Danbury, Conn., early in his sentence, has spent much of his time behind bars since in solitary confinement and has been repeatedly transferred among prisons.
Activists plan to rally Thursday afternoon at Federal Plaza in Chicago, urging federal prosecutors to file additional charges.
Van Dyke will serve three years on supervised release, equivalent to parole, which will require occasional check-ins with a court officer. Wherever he lives in Illinois, he will also have to give information to his local police department for the state’s Violent Offender Against Youth Registry, which would typically make information such as his address available on a public database.
The Sun-Times Media Wire and the Associated Press contributed to this report.