Lightfoot’s fiery rhetoric isn’t a strategy for dealing with Chicago’s surge in crime – Chicago Tribune

Lori Lightfoot made her name as a candidate for mayor by criticizing Chicago’s police. Now running for reelection, she has pivoted toward sounding tough on crime.

In a high-profile instance this week, Lightfoot even talked tough on the rights of the accused. People charged with violent crime should be held in jail before trial, Lightfoot said, because “they’re guilty.”

Well, not quite. In fact, after someone is charged, there is a proceeding called a trial. The accused is presumed innocent. Judges and juries have the ultimate say on guilt or innocence, not tough-talking politicians seeking reelection.

Surely Lightfoot knows this. Most Americans do. Yet Lightfoot chose her over-the-top rhetoric out of apparent frustration with parts of the city’s criminal justice landscape she cannot control: Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans and a surge in violent crime that has vexed Chicago for the last two years.

Laying blame won’t help. Lightfoot knows that, too. But with too few solutions and strategies to offer, this is where she often lands.

Here is the key passage from Lightfoot’s comments at St. Sabina Catholic Church on Monday: “We shouldn’t be locking up nonviolent individuals just because they can’t afford to pay bail,” Lightfoot said. “But, given the exacting standards that the state’s attorney has for charging a case — which is proof beyond a reasonable doubt — when those charges are brought, these people are guilty.”

And here is a very unofficial translation of the mayor’s words: Foxx won’t bring a case, Lightfoot is saying, unless there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s the standard for conviction, not indictment. So if Foxx is going to be so cautious, then let’s face it, anyone she charges must surely be guilty.

The remainder of Lightfoot’s commentary was less fiery but equally pointed. She aimed it at Evans, who beginning in 2017 implemented a reform program by which many people accused of violent crimes can get out on bail while they await trial.

Such people can intimidate witnesses, Lightfoot said at St. Sabina. Their return to the streets undermines confidence in the courts. “When someone has a rap sheet as long as my arm, and then they’ve committed another act of violence, they are a danger to our community and should be held, pretrial,” she said.

Both Lightfoot statements have an appeal to a city shaken by increases in violent crime. And the fire in the mayor’s voice made clear her frustration and anger are deeply felt. Many people in the community — in all neighborhoods of the city — share that frustration and anger.

Part of the community’s frustration stems from the fact that, two years into a surge in homicides and shootings, Lightfoot still has found few ways to effectively address the problems. And while there may be some basis for her critiques of Foxx and Evans, the finger-pointing gets Lightfoot no closer to finding a path toward more public safety.

Speaking her truth at a news conference may score political points for Lightfoot. But the real work — finding ways to work with Foxx, Evans, Chicago police and community stakeholders in ways that can make Chicago just and safe — seems to elude her.

It can’t help that Lightfoot keeps building her case based on innuendo and an indifference to the data. For example, judges have ample discretion to jail people who represent a risk to the community: Not everyone gets bail.

Other known facts raise more questions. Consider this: Homicides so far this year actually are down slightly compared to the same period in 2017, just before Evans’ reforms took effect. Does that mean his reforms are working? But wait, shootings are up during the same period. What to make of that?

Cook County Circuit Court data raises questions about whether Lightfoot is fairly blaming bail reform for the rise in violent crime. Since the program began nearly five years ago, 3.5% of felony suspects granted early release have allegedly committed violent crimes while out on pretrial release. That averages to about 600 violent crimes allegedly committed each year by people on the streets thanks to bail reform.

Six hundred violent crimes are a scourge on society. The data does point to problems with Evans’ reforms. But those crimes alone do not account for a surge that last year led to at least 800 homicides, nearly 3,700 nonfatal shootings, more than 2,000 carjackings and more than 1,700 sexual assaults, according to city data.

Bottom line: Pretrial release by county judges is one factor among many. Perhaps Foxx’s cautious approach to charging felony crimes is letting criminals run loose, too. The Chicago Police Department and the mayor’s office bear their own responsibility, but Lightfoot doesn’t talk about that.

The St. Sabina news conference focused on a city program to provide security devices for small businesses and residential doorways. That could be a useful tactical measure, among many tried by Lightfoot and her police chief, David Brown. But hit-and-miss tactics do not amount to a strategy, and a strategy won’t work if it occurs in isolation from other law enforcement agencies — the courts and state’s attorney’s office among them.

These are frustrating times. The challenges of Chicago’s crime problem are almost beyond measure. Incendiary rhetoric clouds the underlying issues. It confuses the public. And it contributes nothing toward the important work of bringing safety, and justice, to a city badly in need of both.

David Greising is president and CEO of the Better Government Association.

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