New Gang Law: Ripe for Abuse and Problems within the System

The new anti-gang law signed by Governor Quinn this week may sound like it makes sense theoretically, but it will likely become a real problem in its day to day application.  The law is aimed at punishing gang members who are found to be in possession of a firearm.  When looking at the gang violence in Chicago, the idea of this law makes sense, but only if you believe that the Chicago and Cook County criminal justice systems are based on sound nuanced practices rather than being riddled with racism and corruption.  Quite often legislators over step their bounds in what they believe are society’s best interests in an honest attempt to do the right thing.  This new law is a textbook example. You can find the text of this bill in our FOI center here.

gang lawThe crux of this law is the ability of the legal system to determine if the youth in question is a member of a gang.  But providing a reliable and consistent way of determining an individuals’ gang membership is no simple task.  Without their ability to determine which offender is and is not in a gang in a reliable fashion means many kids are going to get sentenced to prison terms through “guilt by association” rather than an true aggravating factor associated with their case.   I provide a rather primitive but yet important hypothetical case study here.

Case Study:

Joe and Jack get into a fight on the street, officers respond, and determine that Jack is in possession of a loaded weapon.  They arrest Jack and charge him under this new statute because they have determined he was a gang member because he associates with individuals that are know gang members.

You need to realize that no overt act was committed in furtherance of the interests of any gang; just that the “system” has a belief that he is a gang member.  Now, prosecutors will say if the youth is not in a gang he/she has the ability to prove that in court.  Well, this assumption only reflects the reality of a well functioning criminal legal system, not the system in Cook County.  Is it impossible for a youth to prove he/she is not in a gang?  No.  In reality it is near impossible for a youth of color to prove this to a jury.  It is also important to understand that nearly 95% of all criminal cases in Cook County reach a plea agreement before ever going to trial; thus removing any opportunity for the youth to get into a court to disapprove their gang membership.

The reality turns out that Jack was not a gang member, but was carrying a weapon to defend himself against violent threats of forced gang recruit.  On one hand, the criminal justice system is practically powerless to protect him against these threats.  On the other hand, with this new law, the criminal justice system is now empowered to incarcerate him improperly using a statute that should be used to protect him but never really is.  Not every male of color is carrying a weapon is a member of gang; but, with these new enhancements mandating incarceration that is what the reality will become in our criminal courts in Cook County and throughout the State of Illinois.

In an interesting article in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin Madison County Public Defender John J. Rekowski was quoted saying the following:
“The legislature needs to stop pandering.  Every time a crime is committed or any time a prosecutor loses a case, it doesn’t require a new law” “Make no mistake about it, this is basically a race-motivated bill”

The absence of consistent measures will create a void that will be filled by what usually fills voids in the criminal justice system in Chicago and the US, racism and corruption.  The criminal justice system in Chicago continues to fail to learn from past experiences.  Gang suppression squads have a long history in Chicago of going very wrong: Joseph Miedzianowski, Austin 7, Marquette 10, Special Operations Section (SOS), to name a few.  Our legislators and our governor want us to believe that in 2010 there will be complete honesty in how the police and prosecutors determine who is and who is not in a gang.  Frankly, I am so busy trying to keep up with all of their past failures that I can not possibly believe the CPD deserves the right to say who is and who is not in a gang for prosecution purposes.

Just one small reminder:  the fallout from the impending federal indictments of remaining officers of the SOS is still to come.  With rumors of federal moles within the accountability agencies of the Chicago Police Department for the years SOS was running wild starting to surface, the indictments that are coming may yet be the biggest scandal to befall the Chicago Police Department ever.   Gangs, drugs, and guns (and their monetary imperative) are what lead to police corruption in this city.  Enhancing the power of individual officers or units to determine who is and who is not in a gang is a prescription for manipulation and corruption.

Wait you say, they are working with the prosecutors from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office , they will of course prohibit bad police practices from entering the courtroom.  When the SOS corruption was made public it was because of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office; however, it was not because they suspected corrupt practices, it was because the SOS members stopped showing up for court in cases the prosecutors thought they could win.  Losing cases is bad for prosecutors because it depresses their conviction rate (not to mention their individual careers).  It never dawned on the prosecutors that the SOS members were lying in their testimony; although they were doing just that.  In the end, SOS got caught at the local level because they were not sticking to the agreement to show up for court and help get convictions, not because the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office realized they were corrupt.  Never mind the fact that federal prosecutors had an ongoing secret federal grand jury investigating SOS while local prosecutors were putting people in jail relying on testimony from the now disgraced unit.  In short, both the Burge saga and the recent history of the SOS proves that Cook County prosecutors by and large are not an effective check on corrupt police practices; yet this law relies on these same prosecutors to fulfill this role without any evidence that they have ever really done so in a consistent and proper manner.

Lets compare:

  • New York: plunging crime rates and plunging prison populations
  • Chicago, by and large level crime rates and increasing prison populations.

Who is doing something right and who is doing something wrong?

Tracy has nearly two decades of experience researching and working within criminal justice systems. When Tracy began pursuing a career dedicate to system reform, he found that no single organization existed to promote evidence-based discussions among law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. Recognizing that citizens in Chicago deserved the right to demand transparency in their criminal justice system, Siska established the Chicago Justice Project. He received his Master of Arts degree in Criminal Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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