CN November 7, 2013

Well, the Illinois Legislature gaveled to a close today without any tangible pension-reform legislation. But that wasn’t the only thing that got left behind as the doors closed.

Mayor Emanuel and Police Superintendent McCarthy had pushed mightily for increased mandatory minimum sentences for illegal gun possession  But it didn’t happen. At first, it seemed like a no-brainer. But…

“Almost immediately you had push-back from people who said, look, we’re warehousing so many people, do we need 20,000 more people in Illinois prisons?” says the Sun-Times’ Frank Main. “It’s going to cost an extra billion dollars to do that.”

Resistance began to build from minority groups and representatives, and political groups as diverse as the John Howard Association an the NRA.

“People are languishing in prison doing nothing,” the Chicago Reporter’s Angela Caputo tells us. “And so the question is – is there a way that we could spend this billion dollars that would be far more effective at fighting crime? I think a job is a great deterrent. Could a good job be a better deterrent than three years in the penitatiary?”

There’s another issue, too. Isn’t the role of judges being diminished as more and more laws are enacted that limit the role judges can play in, well, rendering their judgement? Are legislatures usurping the Constitutional role of judges?

“Judges believe – and I’ve talked to some of them – that possessory crimes are not violent crimes,” explains the Pulitzer-Prize winning Main.  “And you have the Chicago Police Department, the University of Chicago Crime Lab and Rahm Emanuel – who believe possessory gun crimes are violent crimes because you’re very likely to use that gun.”

But that’s where the little-understood process of pleading-down comes into play. “Judges still have discretion. If the prosecutor agrees to dismiss the most serious case, the person might go to prison on a lesser case, and that happens a lot with Class X felonies – armed robbery, say – …lots of times those cases get pleaded down to simple robbery, and I think that’s what would happen lots of times if this legislation were to pass.”

In the just-released issue of the Chicago Reporter, Caputo explains a shadowy process where police and prosecutors, in what’s called a wink-and-nod relationship, charge an offender with a minor infraction, such as possession of small quantities of marijuana. Because the offender doesn’t have resources to bond out, he will sit at Cook County Jail, often for weeks, awaiting trial. When that day finally arrives, the charges are dropped.

“In these misdemeanor courtrooms, eight out of ten cases are thrown out,” says Caputo. So very, very few people are convicted. So we have this whole judicial theater, and in the end, nothing comes of these cases.”

And finally, we kick around the recent revelation that overtime costs in the Police Department will top one hundred million dollars this year.  Sup’t. McCarthy says he supports the overtime because it’s “cheaper” than hiring replacement officers. But isn’t it burning out the officers who have to work all those hours?

“I talk to beat cops I’ve known for ten years,” Main explains. “And they say, for the first time they’re making more than $105,000 a year. These are guys who’ve been on the force for 20, 25 years and qualify for these overtime districts. But they love it. They’re working crazy hours to do it, but they’re banking tons of money.”

But don’t most Chicagoans prefer hiring more police officers instead of just going the overtime route? “You get a mixed reaction even from people in communities most affected by crime,” Caputo asserts. “Even the aldermen – they feel that police are overly aggressive and they feel that they aren’t solving crimes, but on the flip side, they’re, like, where are the Police? We need some backup.”

“People feel that they’re worn so thin,” she concludes.  “We have some of the highest childhood poverty rates in the country in these same neighborhoods. We have more young people (in Lawndale, West Englewood) 18-25 who’ve never had a job than any other part of the country. Those are the things that contribute to the perception, and – can we arrest our way out of this problem?”

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About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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