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Cook County chief judge eyes special bail hearings for gun cases

Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans says he’s exploring new ways for the court system to handle gun possession cases. | Sun-Times file photo

Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans says he’s exploring new ways for the court system to handle gun possession cases — three years after he put the brakes on the idea of a specialized gun court.

In 2012, Evans halted a plan by Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle to create a gun court. Evans was blindsided when Preckwinkle announced at a news conference that a new gun court would open on July 1, 2013.

Evans sent a letter to Preckwinkle and county commissioners that he would not consider a gun court until he heard from judges, the state’s attorney and the public defender. He asked his staff to study the idea.

On Friday, Evans, in a statement to the Chicago Sun-Times, said, “There is no evidence that a specialty court for gun possession cases can help to reduce gun violence.”

Still, Evans said he has been “engaging other criminal justice stakeholders in talks that primarily focused on creating a gun-related ‘call’ in Cook County Circuit Court.” Those talks have been going on since September, Evans said. He gave no timetable for a decision.

The discussions have included the police department, the state’s attorney’s office and the public defender.

A ‘gun call’ is different than a specialized gun court, according to sources familiar with the discussions.

The idea is for a rotating panel of three judges to conduct bail hearings for every illegal gun possession case. Those cases would be heard in a courtroom at 26th and California that’s normally reserved for violent crimes such as murders and sexual assaults.

The goal is to provide consistency in the way gun possession cases are handled and to hear those cases in a place that underscores the seriousness of those crimes.

Chicago Police detectives would be assigned to the gun call to provide the judges with detailed background information about the defendants.

Once a bail hearing is held, the cases would be assigned to judges throughout the courthouse, as they normally are.

Former police Supt. Garry McCarthy was a major proponent of a gun call as a first step toward a gun court.

He regularly spoke about a lack of “swiftness and certainty” in gun possession cases and frequently pointed out situations in which people on bond for gun possession were arrested over and over with guns while on the streets awaiting trial.

McCarthy, who was forced to resign last month after the release of the infamous video of Officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shooting Laquan McDonald, declined to comment.

The Chicago Police Department continues to support the effort to create a gun call, said Anthony Guglielmi, a spokesman.

“Interim Supt. John Escalante strongly supports the creation of a robust criminal justice solution which creates a culture of accountability for the small group of individuals who terrorize Chicago communities through gun violence,” Guglielmi said.

In a statement, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said she “is certainly willing to continue to explore the concept of a gun call if it could enhance the criminal justice system’s handling of gun cases and reduce the gun violence epidemic here in Chicago.”

Roseanna Ander, executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, said a gun call is “worth exploring.”

“And if it moves forward, then it would be important to rigorously evaluate so the public and policymakers had real answers to guide policy and practice — especially in matters of life and death,” Ander said.

“There is a growing body of research that suggests that consistency itself is an important component of an effective criminal justice system, not severity. Given the great importance of solving the heartbreaking challenge of gun violence in the city of Chicago, there would be great value in finding some way — whatever that is — of further strengthening the consistency of the criminal justices system, especially in cases involving illegal guns,” she said.

Evans said he’s “also researching programs that feature multiple components to help young people make better choices that, as a result, will improve the quality of life in all of our communities.”

He pointed to a report that says more than 40 percent of people admitted to the Cook County Jail on gun possession charges are 21 years old or younger — a rate more than twice as high as for other offenses. But youths aren’t easily deterred from carrying guns because of harsher sentencing, the report said.

“There is no evidence that a specialty court for gun possession cases can help to reduce gun violence,” said a report by the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University School of Law.

One promising approach is to target gun traffickers with stiffer prison sentences, while offering alternatives to prosecution for ordinary gun possession charges, similar to what Cook County’s drug court does now, the report said.

Under the county’s Rehabilitation Alternative Probation program, narcotics addicts convicted of various offenses receive probation and their convictions are vacated after they successfully complete a two-year treatment program.

But there’s a potential roadblock to creating a similar diversion program for gun offenders in Cook County. That’s because some types of gun possession offenses in Illinois don’t allow the possibility of probation.

New York authorities have also been considering alternative ways to handle gun possession cases. Last week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the reopening of a specialized gun court in Brooklyn.

New York had operated a gun court in Brooklyn from 2003 to 2009. But after New York state law boosted the minimum sentence for possession of a loaded weapon, authorities no longer felt the court was needed.

McCarthy was one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Brooklyn gun court in 2003. At the time, he was in charge of crime strategy for the New York Police Department before heading the Newark and Chicago police departments.

Reviews of the gun court have been mixed.

In one study, the New York City Criminal Justice Agency found Brooklyn’s gun court boosted the length of gun possession sentences and sped the cases through the justice system.

Yet the Bluhm Legal Clinic concluded that the court didn’t play a meaningful role in New York’s steady decrease in violent crime, which began 13 years before the court was opened and continued to fall at about the same rate afterward.