If the Chicago Police Department, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and Mayor Rahm Emanuel could agree on Chicago’s public enemy No.1, odds are they’d all point to guns. They have been under enormous political pressure to get a handle on the gun violence that has claimed more than 4,000 lives in Chicago during the past decade.
But how effective has the criminal justice system been when it comes to putting alleged gunmen behind bars? It hasn’t had the type of success as the public might expect.
From January 2006 through August 2013, thousands of cases involving a weapons violation were thrown out in Cook County’s criminal courts, The Chicago Reporter found. More than 13,000 cases that included a gun violation have been dismissed during that period, shows the Reporter’s analysis of records maintained by the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County. In fact, more felony cases involving a gun–from illegal possession to unlawful sale to a felon–have been thrown out than cases with any other type of charge.
The politics of gun violence in Chicago could be inadvertently driving the dismissals, said Rely Vilcica, a former judge in Romania and now an associate professor of criminal justice at Temple University. So much pressure is mounting about gun violence that public officials are now saying, “We cannot do nothing about guns,” said Vilcica, who similarly examined dismissed gun cases in Philadelphia.
The high volume of dismissed cases point to a broken criminal justice system, critics say. But where is it breaking down? Is it among police officers who, under pressure to make gun-related arrests, might be filing charges that don’t hold up in court? Or is it among prosecutors who might be allowing thousands of weak cases–only to dismiss them later to preserve their conviction rate? Or might it be that judges are agreeing to suppress evidence because of a bad arrest?
“What ends up being plausible is all of it has the potential to be true,” said Roseanna Ander, executive director of the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab, which studies the way gun offenses are prosecuted in Cook County’s criminal courts. “But what is the bulk of it?”
The number of dismissed felony gun-related cases has grown from 845 in 2006 to 2,109 in 2012, the Reporter analysis shows. The trend has continued during the first seven months of this year, during which more gun cases were thrown out than in either 2006 or 2007.
The Reporter provided the state’s attorney’s office with a summary of its findings, along with the methodology used in the data analysis. Sally Daly, the office’s director of communications, did not refute the methodology but maintained that the numbers are inflated. “The data being reported was not obtained from or reviewed in detail by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office,” Daly wrote in a statement. “We do not believe that the data paints an accurate picture of actual gun case dismissals.”
According to the state’s attorney’s office, just 12 percent–or 625 out of 5,260–of gun possession cases have been thrown out during the past two years. But the figure only includes cases in which gun possession was the lead charge and excludes some cases involving multiple charges.
Fabio Valentini, the chief of the state’s attorney’s office’s criminal prosecutions bureau, said an “overwhelming” number of the dismissed cases were based on a judge’s decision to suppress evidence because a gun was intercepted in a way that violates the Fourth Amendment. Under that scenario, the prosecutor’s office would have no choice but to throw out the charge. “We’d have nothing to pursue the case on,” Valentini said.
The Reporter requested to exmaine the records of a process known as “felony review,” in which the state’s attorney’s office weighs the merits of each felony charge before pursuing the case. The request was denied. A similar request made by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle was also denied, the Reporter learned.
But Valentini said a high number of simple gun-possession cases do pass the muster of felony review “because it’s a simple charge.” But he didn’t provide specifics.
In researching the outcome of gun cases, Crime Lab’s Anders said she’s heard varied explanations. “There’s lots of narrative that police are bringing bad cases,” she said. “But there are also judges who don’t think it’s ‘a real crime’ because [the defendant] didn’t pull the trigger.”
In her observation, Chicago police and the state’s attorney’s office are not only aggressively pursuing gun cases but bringing in additional investigative resources to make sure they’re strong and will stand up in court.
Still, the outcome is often “a crap shoot,” she said. “Sometimes nothing happens. Sometimes the hammer comes down.”
Anders pointed to a growing body of research that it’s the certainty, not the severity, of the punishment that is most likely to change behavior–in this case, deterring people from carrying guns in the first place.
Vilcica said her own research found that dismissals reached 75 percent among simple gun possession cases in Philadelphia in 2005 and 2006, and it sent a message to defendants that they could carry guns with impunity. “They’ll think, ‘I got through this, and nothing happened to me,’ ” she said.
Her research also found that those same defendants were almost four times more likely to be convicted of an additional crime than defendants charged in other crimes.
But not all consequences of the high dismissal numbers may necessarily be negative, said Arthur Lurigio, professor of psychology and criminal justice at Loyola University Chicago.
“In letting the case go, you may look at it as maybe they’re being lax,” Lurigio said. “In another way, they are protecting constitutional rights.”