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Chief Justice denies Chicago Mayor’s request to jail more defendants

Cook County Chief Justice Timothy Evans denies Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s motion to stop the court from releasing defendants charged with certain crimes, saying the data she used to push for this change are flawed.

Evans’ office said he sent a letter Tuesday criticizing the request, a response by Lightfoot to the 20-month-old spike in gun violence in the city that brought the total number of homicides to 836 last year, the highest in a quarter of a century. The Chief Justice opposes Lightfoot’s push for a “temporary moratorium” on the release of electronic surveillance suspects, known as EM, when they face crimes including murder, attempted murder, aggravated assault, sex crimes, auto theft, kidnapping and illegal gun possession.

“There is no evidence that individuals released from custody are fueling this wave of violence,” Evans’ office said in a statement Tuesday describing his letter to Lightfoot. “Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic [the violence] has hit both cities like Chicago that have undergone bail bond reform and cities that haven’t.”

Bail reforms in 2017 and pandemic measures in 2020 allowed more people in Cook County to await trial with a GPS-enabled ankle bracelet instead of sitting in jail. The county’s main EM program, which is run by Sheriff Tom Dart’s office, requires defendants to stay home unless they have court-approved permits to go to work, school or vocational training . According to his office, the sheriff’s daily EM population averaged about 3,300 last year, up from about 2,200 four years earlier.

Lightfoot’s moratorium proposal includes the charge of gun possession, even if the defendant has no criminal background. At a January 4 press conference, she described these offenses as “gateways” to more serious crimes.

In a Dec. 29 letter to Evans, Lightfoot urged the chief justice to “consider the impact on victims, witnesses and survivors when violent, dangerous people are immediately back on the streets within days of their arrest.”

“Imagine that you are a victim of gun violence and you muster up the courage to provide law enforcement with information that will lead to the arrest of the person(s) responsible,” the mayor wrote to Evans. “Then, within 24 to 48 hours of being arrested, the same person is back on the street with virtually no restrictions on their movement. Would any of us feel safe in this scenario? What message does it send to the victims, witnesses or survivors?”

But Evans, who published only parts of his letter in response to Lightfoot, pointed to constitutional problems with keeping people in jail on police allegations: “In our justice system, the accuser is not the judge. A judge, not a prosecutor or law enforcement officer, must decide whether to deprive a person of their liberty.”

Evans’ office said 86% of defendants charged with murder or attempted murder in the county between October 2019 and September 2021 were not released and had to serve the duration of their cases behind bars. But the office said the mayor’s proposed EM moratorium would have caught thousands of defendants whose charges were dropped because of insufficient evidence or who were found not guilty at trial.

“Those who were detained in prison but not convicted were deprived of their liberty without being charged and were unable to study, work or support their families while in detention,” the statement read Evan’s office.

“The law requires that defendants be released on the least restrictive terms that reasonably ensure their appearance in court and that adequately protect the community, witnesses, victims or any other person,” the chief justice’s office said.

Evans also pointed out inaccuracies in the data, which Lightfoot has highlighted to gain support for her proposal. They include 15 people listed as being electronically monitored by the Chicago Police Department when they were arrested on a new murder charge last year. Evans’ office said at least five of those new arrests for 2020 murders came before the suspect was released with the ankle cuffs attached.

A sixth defendant on that list was admitted to EM for a violent crime, according to the chief justice, and then arrested for murder stemming from the same incident, not a new crime.

Evans’ office said that among other new arrests in Lightfoot’s data, its staff found defendants whose primary charge that led to the EM was nonviolent drug offenses. The chief justice’s office said it found others in the mayor’s records who were not on EM at the time of their arrest.

The chief justice’s concerns about Lightfoot’s data follow similar findings by the Chicago Tribune.

Evans has also pointed to academic studies that have found that the vast majority of people facing gun-related charges who are released at EM in Chicago are not arrested for a new crime while their case is unfolding, and that gun ownership offenses by the EM population are just a tiny fraction of the city’s gun arrests.

The EM moratorium proposed by Lightfoot was also criticized by prosecutor Kim Foxx.

“This electronic surveillance narrative has been a constant refrain for almost 18 months,” Foxx told WBEZ. “This is unfortunate because it has added misplaced fear and is keeping us from addressing the real issues driving violence.”

Those issues, Foxx said, include gun accessibility and long-term community disinvestment.

Dart, the sheriff, has expressed concern that the EM program he oversees includes individuals accused of violent crimes, but at an online forum with North Side politicians this month he said his office has data showing that “the vast majority of people [on EM] we have – even the violent people – don’t commit crimes.”

“The technology is very good,” Dart said. “If there is a movement that [defendants on EM] shouldn’t do, let’s contact people, see if there’s a reasonable explanation. If not, then we send [sheriff’s] cars over there.”

While Lightfoot’s letter focused on defendants in Dart’s EM program, she urged Evans to release figures on a smaller EM program overseen by the Chief Justice.

Evans’ office, which is exempt from the state’s open records law, did not answer WBEZ questions about how many defendants its EM program affects, what charges are being brought against them, or how many were re-arrested during the program last year.

Lightfoot’s office did not immediately declassify Evans’ letter or respond to a request for comment on it.

Chip Mitchell reports on policing from WBEZ’s West Side Studio. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1. Contact him at [email protected]

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