Federal gun prosecutions up in Chicago, fewer illegal immigration, fraud cases

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U.S. Attorney John Lausch on rise in number of federal gun prosecutions: “We’re not patting ourselves on the back. I mean, we have a lot of work to do.” | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

It’s one of the rare things on which Mayor Rahm Emanuel and President Donald Trump agree: the need for more federal gun prosecutions in Chicago.

In 2014, Chicago’s Democratic mayor declared that federal prosecutors in Chicago, working under then-President Barack Obama, were doing a “horrible” job tackling gun crime.

Trump took up the issue, beginning as he campaigned for the Republican nomination for president. And just after he assumed office in early 2017, he tweeted that he would “send in the Feds” if the city didn’t “fix the horrible carnage.” Days later, Jeff Sessions, his attorney general at the time, promised to step up gun prosecutions in Chicago.

Now, a year and a half later, the mayor and the president seem to have gotten what they wanted. Federal gun prosecutions in Chicago are up, as they are nationally.

That’s according to a Chicago Sun-Times analysis of court data that also found that the number of federal fraud prosecutions in Chicago has fallen in recent years and that fewer illegal immigration cases are being brought here than a decade ago.

Days ago, John Lausch, the U.S. attorney in Chicago, noted the rising number of gun prosecutions. But Lausch also said: “We’re not patting ourselves on the back. I mean, we have a lot of work to do.”

In 2016, the Sun-Times found that the number of federal gun-crimes prosecutions in Chicago was lagging behind other urban areas even as the number of killings had shot up. With 771 murders, it was the city’s deadliest year in nearly two decades.

In 2017, 650 people were killed in Chicago. The police say 488 people have been killed through Nov. 11 of this year.

The bloodshed caught the attention of Trump as he campaigned. He mentioned them when he accepted the Republican nomination in 2016. And, as president, he repeatedly has vowed to deal with gun crime in Chicago and other cities.

In the summer of 2017, Trump dispatched 20 agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to Chicago to help in the fight against gun violence.

Recently, his administration announced that more ATF agents and federal prosecutors would be assigned here.

“We have more resources, I think, put into addressing violent crime than we’ve ever had before,” Lausch said.

He said Washington has let him hire a dozen new prosecutors. Five of them will make up a new Gun Crimes Prosecution Team.

Gun-crimes prosecutions began to go up in Chicago after the spring of 2016, court records show.

The Sun-Times analysis found that the number of gun-crimes defendants rose by 75 percent from March 2016 to March 2017.

It went up another 29 percent over the next year, through March 2018. One hundred and 60 people were charged with gun crimes over that period. 

The analysis was based on data from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, which counts defendants according to the most serious charge filed against them.

The U.S. attorney’s office released its own preliminary numbers this past week, showing 197 defendants have been charged with gun-related crimes in the year ending on Sept. 30, 2018, compared with 177 over the same period the previous 12 months.

Rev. Michael Pfleger: “If we’re just about putting guys in prison for having guns, and we’re not shutting off the spigot, it’s a charade.” | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

Rev. Michael Pfleger: “If we’re just about putting guys in prison for having guns, and we’re not shutting off the spigot, it’s a charade.” | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

“I think it’s good,” said the Rev. Michael Pfleger, the anti-violence activist whose St. Sabina Catholic Church is in the heart of gun-plagued Auburn Gresham.

But Pfleger said federal authorities need to focus more heavily on gun traffickers and on thefts of guns from South Side train yards.

“If we’re just about putting guys in prison for having guns, and we’re not shutting off the spigot, it’s a charade,” Pfleger said.

Gun-crime prosecutions started trending upward in Chicago toward the end of former U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon’s nearly four-year tenure. Fardon resigned in March 2017 after Sessions asked for the resignations of all Obama-era U.S. attorneys.


More fed gun cases, but Chicago still trails other cities, March 19, 2017

Despite promises, feds’ fight against guns lagging, Oct. 23, 2016

Asked about the rise in the number of federal gun prosecutions, Emanuel said: “It’s as plain as day that as U.S. attorney, John Lausch has focused his office on gun prosecutions in a way that it hadn’t been for years. And don’t kid yourself, criminals have taken notice, and it’s helping us drive down violence. The results speak for themselves, and the U.S. attorney deserves credit for his work.”

Lausch, who was sworn into office in November 2017, appeared to be a prime candidate to take on violent crime. A former assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago, he had experience prosecuting street gangs and corrupt cops. 

Lausch came in to the top prosecutor’s post knowing that taking on violence in Chicago was a problem that vexed his predecessor. 

He has managed to continue and build upon the turnaround in gun prosecutions.

In the past two years, more gun defendants were charged in federal court in Chicago than in Los Angeles, even though L.A. has a larger metro population.

Lausch said his new Gun Crimes Prosecution Team will focus on parts of the city with high rates of shootings and murders. He said the aim is to pursue “impactful” cases — which might mean filing a gun charge to get a violent individual off the street or taking down an entire gang with a more complex racketeering case. 

Last month, his office announced racketeering charges against members of what’s known as the “Goonie Boss” faction of the Gangster Disciples street gang, tying its members to 11 killings in Englewood between 2014 and 2016.

Lausch said there has been regular communication between his prosecutors and those in the office of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx in an effort to determine whether it might be more effective to file certain cases in federal court or state court. Citing carjacking cases filed in federal court earlier this year, he said he hopes to get the word out that people caught committing gun crimes could not only face longer prison terms but that they also could wind up in a cell outside Illinois when federal charges are filed.

“The more that we can do federally to help local police officers and state prosecutors attack the violent crime problem is helpful,” Lausch said.

The number of federal gun prosecutions in Chicago is now about double what it was a decade ago.

Meanwhile, the number of federal immigration and fraud cases in Chicago has dropped in the past 10 years. A decade ago, the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago had brought about three times as many prosecutions for immigrants re-entering the country illegally and about twice as many fraud cases as it has in recent years, court records show.

There were 295 defendants charged by federal authorities in Chicago with fraud in 2009, 200 in 2015 and 145 in 2018. Those totals were for 12-month periods ending on March 31.

Nationally, the number of defendants charged with fraud in federal court fell by about 35 percent over the past decade, the records show. The number of illegal reentry cases have risen slightly across the country.

In the past year, gun prosecutions were up about 19 percent nationally over a decade ago.

In Chicago and nationally, the total number of federal prosecutions for all types of crimes has fallen over the past decade,  records show.

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