The politics of bail reform: Part II

Simply having an illegal gun in Illinois not considered a violent crime

CHICAGO — Chicago’s street violence was raging this summer, and so was debate over how to solve the problem.

Chicago police say they’re frustrated, and claim they arrest people for having guns, only to see them back out on the streets soon after.

Raheem Hinton, 20, is a case in point.

Police arrested Hinton on Aug. 27 for unlawful use of a weapon by a felon. Initially, a judge denied him bail. But a week later, at another court date, a judge set his bail at $50,000.

Hinton paid the required 10%, or $5,000, and walked out of jail on Sept. 6.

Five days later, police cameras saw him back on the street, with another gun.

“If we don’t send a message to them that we won’t tolerate you picking up these guns and using them, then that behavior will continue," CPD Supt. Eddie Johnson. “It’s as simple as that.”

Cases like that one have caused local law enforcement to sound the alarm.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said she knows Johnson is frustrated, and agrees dangerous individuals should be held without bail. But the issue, she says, is more complicated than it might initially appear. For one, people who are arrested have a constitutional right to bail. The only reason they should be held in jail before trial is if they are truly dangerous, or history indicates they are unlikely to show back up to court.

Moreover, in Illinois, a UUW charge (unlawful use of a weapon), is not a violent offense. It doesn’t mean a person actually fired a gun. It means the person simply possessed it, albeit illegally. For Foxx, that distinction matters, especially when police rarely catch people in the act of discharging a weapon. She feels the context of each individual case needs to be considered by judges, which is why judges are ultimately the decision makers in these cases.

“There’s a huge difference between that person who feels like, look, I have to travel through treacherous territory to get and from work, versus someone who is determined to wreak havoc,” she said.

“I think we’ve been successful in terms of making sure that people who shouldn’t be there because they are poor, aren’t there,” Foxx said. “I think we need to continue to work on making sure that people are seen individually, and that we are not relying on algorithms to tell us who is a public safety threat.”

In other states, such as New Jersey, if a person is charged with certain gun crimes, he or she is less likely to get out of jail before their trial. Being a felon in possession of a weapon, for example, triggers a presumption the person won’t be released from jail at his or her bail hearing. In Illinois, there’s no such policy.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart believes the law needs to be reviewed. He thinks certain kinds of weapons, like assault rifles, should keep someone in jail pre-trial. At the very least, he said, the burden should be shifted to the defense attorneys during bail hearings to prove why certain gun offenders need to be released from jail. The other option is to flag people with guns during the pre-trial assessment process that helps give judges a good picture of the defendant’s history.

To some extent, Foxx agrees. But she thinks it's important judges still have discretion.

In other states, such as New Jersey, if a person is charged with certain gun crimes, he or she is less likely to get out of jail before their trial. In Illinois, there’s no such provision, though some officials we spoke with wondered if the law here should change. Right now, because simply having a gun isn’t a violent offense, it’s more difficult for judges to keep people in jail.

“The conversation that we’re having with the stakeholders now — the recognition that Illinois and particularly Chicago, has a unique gun problem, means that we have to be able to make sure our response in curated around that,” Foxx said.

“Looking at New Jersey and how they treat felons in possession…we ought to be looking at, and are talking about it,” she said.

“I think we are extremely committed to getting something done.”

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