After Chicago experienced its worst year of violent crime in more than two decades, Mayor Lori Lightfoot again sought to reassure residents that their safety is her top priority while also criticizing Cook County judges for pre-trial releases of some alleged offenders.
“We must do more,” Lightfoot said at police headquarters, after meeting with the Chicago Police Department’s top brass. “Our residents have a right to expect that they are gonna be safe in their home, in their car, while they’re at work, while they’re shopping, and while they’re living their daily lives.”
Lightfoot has repeatedly acknowledged that many Chicagoans don’t feel safe, a dynamic that threatens public safety, residents’ mental health and the city’s economy. But the mayor’s comments, which largely echoed a December address she gave on crime, did not break new ground or offer fresh strategies. Instead, Lightfoot and Chicago Police superintendent David Brown hit a series of familiar themes as they discussed spiking violence.
In a 75-minute news conference, Lightfoot and Brown talked about the need to improve living conditions in neighborhoods, hire detectives to help solve crimes and work more closely with federal agents on investigations.
Lightfoot also repeatedly criticized Cook County judges and bond reform, saying that there are too many violent criminals being let out on the street and reoffending, repeating her call from her December address for a moratorium on the use of electronic monitoring. That form of pre-trial release uses ankle bracelets to keep track of defendants in criminal cases, some of whom the mayor has described as “violent dangerous offenders.”
“When is the criminal justice system in this county going to wake up?” Lightfoot said.
The mayor followed up on the request in a letter to Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans, which was obtained Tuesday by the Tribune.
In the letter, dated Dec. 29, Lightfoot argues that while a mix of tactics must be used to address what causes violence, the “ballooning release of violent and dangerous people on EM (electronic monitoring) is definitely one of those drivers.”
When Lightfoot first announced her request for the moratorium, the idea was immediately decried as unconstitutional by leaders in the criminal justice system, who also raised doubts that targeting this population of offenders would address Chicago’s deeply entrenched crime problem, which is also understood to be a public health crisis.
Those criticisms continued Tuesday.
Evans, who said he received the letter over the holidays, issued his first public response, citing constitutional concerns around listing certain charges for which charged defendants could not be released.
“The mayor’s request seems to suggest that those who currently are put on electronic monitoring for certain accusations should instead be held in jail until trial,” Evans said. “Under the U.S. and Illinois Constitutions, a judge cannot hold someone pretrial without a finding that the defendant poses a real and present threat to the physical safety of any person. This must be found by clear and convincing evidence and the burden of proof is on the prosecution. The mayor’s proposal seems to require that defendants facing certain allegations be considered guilty until proven innocent.”
In the letter, Lightfoot, citing the most recent information available from the sheriff’s office, said there 3,400 people currently released on electronic monitoring and that 2,300 have a “crime of violence” as their lead offense, including 90 accused of murder and 40 of attempted murder. The breakdown of charges also includes 1,480 gun possession cases, though most appear to include aggravating circumstances like being a felon in possession of a weapon.
The letter also states that since the start of 2021, Chicago police have counted 130 cases in which violent offenders who are released on monitoring are charged with another act of violence, including murder and vehicular carjacking. Included in that total is the person accused in the murder of 7-year-old Jaslyn Adams.
Evans, in his response, said he has asked Lightfoot for details on the 130 cases. But he also said that “assuming that these numbers are accurate, they represent about 1 percent of all cases filings for violent and weapons offenses in Chicago in 2021.”
Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell also issued a statement.
”This idea that people on electronic monitoring are responsible for the violence in the city is just untrue,” Mitchell said. “The vast majority of people on electronic monitoring in Cook County are successful. They show up for their court appearances. They don’t violate the terms of their pretrial release. They are not rearrested.”
Lightfoot’s meeting with police leaders and subsequent speech on Tuesday was an attempt to hit the reset button after a bloody 2021. At police headquarters on Tuesday, Lightfoot said she told the department’s leaders, “No one can be comfortable with the way we ended the year.”
Lightfoot started last year with a similar message to the department’s brass after an especially violent 2020. On New Year’s Day last year, Lightfoot sent an email expressing support for police leadership and a pledge to reduce crime.
“I think we all know that we must do exponentially better in this new year, and I am confident we will. My confidence is grounded in many things, but fundamentally it is grounded in my confidence in all of you,” Lightfoot wrote in the email to Brown and other police officials, previously reported on by the Tribune.
Far from improving, however, the city recorded even worse numbers in 2021.
According to case data from the medical examiner released Monday, that office handled more than 1,000 homicides last year, including 836 in the city of Chicago. It was the first time the office had handled that many homicides since 1994.
According to CPD, a total of 797 people were killed in the city, a figure not seen since 798 were slain in 1996. But that figure did not include cases of people shot and killed on city expressways, which are the jurisdiction of Illinois state police, a number that pushed the Chicago statistic to the 800 mark at least.
All told, there were at least 4,300 gunshot victims in the city in 2021, including those who suffered both fatal and nonfatal injuries, according to CPD data.
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Chicago aldermen have repeatedly expressed concerns , though they have sometimes clashed over how to best address the issue. Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly texted Lightfoot in September that the city is “losing downtown.”
The mayor has also faced pressure from high-ranking staff. Susan Lee, a top adviser to Lightfoot and former deputy mayor for public safety, resigned in August while raising concerns about the city’s ability to “keep moving the ball forward” on its violence prevention efforts and the police department’s consent-decree implementation.
A month after Lee resigned, she co-wrote an article with Southwest Side Ald. Matt O’Shea in which they declared Chicago a “city in crisis.”
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