Lightfoot blames bond court reform for gun violence

Backtracking on her campaign commitment to criminal justice reform, the mayor calls for locking more people up in Cook County.

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Photo by Marc Monaghan

After campaigning for office as a staunch supporter of criminal justice reform, Mayor Lori Lightfoot is attacking the effort that’s achieved the most significant gains locally — bond reform in the Cook County courts — and calling for locking more people up as a solution to violent crime.

She’s done so in response to stubbornly high shooting rates this summer, attacking bond court judges for releasing people who’ve been arrested for possessing a gun without a permit. Those judges are carrying out a mandate to follow state law and constitutional standards in reducing the use of cash bond and releasing arrestees who are at low risk of re-offending or fleeing. 

Responses from top officials have pointed out discrepancies in Lightfoot’s position without attacking her directly. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle focused on “concerns” over the “false narrative” put forth by Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson that bond court decisions are driving gun violence, pointing out that shootings and homicides have declined during the period that bond reforms have been carried out.  

Preckwinkle invited Lightfoot and Johnson to join a public safety planning effort sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation. Lightfoot responded less than graciously, pointing to her election win over Preckwinkle to dismiss her former rival’s concerns.

Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans wrote to explain bond reform — including the nearly ten-fold increase in no-bail decisions, as judges reduce the use of cash bond and focus on risk factors — and give details about bail decisions over the July 4 long weekend. Evans also spoke up for the legal rights of defendants and the impartial role of judges.

Some advocates have been more forceful. Both DeAngelo Bester, executive director of the Workers Center for Racial Justice, and Stephanie Kollmann, policy director at Northwestern’s Children and Family Justice Center, have pointed out that Lightfoot is echoing the tough-on-crime rhetoric of her predecessors. 

For Bester, such rhetoric serves to “[deflect] accountability for systemic neighborhood inequities.” He argues that “draconian law enforcement tactics have failed in their purported intent to deter crime. They aggravate the symptoms of racialized disinvestment that underpin disparities in neighborhood safety.”

For Kollmann, Lightfoot appears to be adopting a Chicago Police Department line that blames judicial “lenience” for its own failure to solve cases involving shootings, and police accountability is key to improving public safety. Kollmann also notes the abuse of the term “gun offender,” which she calls “a linguistic trick that pools the huge number of Chicagoans with unlicensed access to a gun with the comparatively tiny number of people who actually commit gun violence.”

That’s a “trick” that Lightfoot has certainly employed. She refers to individuals caught with an unpermitted gun “violent gun offenders,” and complains that the risk assessment tool used by bond court judges doesn’t count unauthorized use of a weapon as a violent offense.

But despite its name, unauthorized use of a weapon is not a violent offense – it’s simply possessing or having access to a gun without the proper permit. It can cover a Firearm Owner ID card holder who can’t afford $200 for a concealed carry permit and is transporting a weapon improperly. It can include a scared pizza delivery person who can’t get a permit due to a decades-old nonviolent drug offense. It can include a kid riding in a car where someone else is caught with a gun, whether he knew about it or not.

Throwing that kid or that pizza delivery person in jail for weeks on end – with the possibility of a mandatory prison term to follow – is not going to make our streets safer. Indeed, by disrupting employment and education, by destabilizing families, by throwing people who may just be afraid for their safety in with dangerous criminals, it’s certain to make things worse.

That approach is “wasteful and harmful,” Kollmann told me. She pointed out that when it was designing its Strategic Subject List to identify individuals at high risk of being victims or perpetrators of gun violence, CPD initially gave weight to gun possession offenses. But it turned out that factor was not a good predictor that someone would commit an offense in the future.

Locking large numbers of people up is not addressing the reasons people carry and use guns, Kollmann said. If someone feels they need to be involved in an illegal trade, the solution is economic opportunity, she said. If they’ve been exposed to trauma – as huge numbers of Chicago’s youth have been – the solution is treatment. Spending vast sums of money on over-policing and over-incarceration just puts those solutions farther out of reach.

Finally, attacking the independence of the judiciary seems especially troubling in the current political climate, when disdain for institutions that can provide checks and balances is ensconced in the White House. Judges evaluate the strength of the evidence against an individual and look at the larger circumstances of the case. The idea that they are operating with a cavalier disregard for the consequences of their actions, or that they just don’t care about violence, is simply wrong. None of them wants to be in the news as the judge who released someone who went on to commit mayhem. 

That rhetorical approach comes across as scapegoating – and it looks a lot like backtracking on commitment to a reform agenda that helped Lightfoot win election.