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Federal gun cases in Chicago, once lagging, hit a 10-year high

U.S. Attorney John Lausch started on the job a year ago knowing he faced a problem that vexed his predecessor: what to do to help slow the bloodshed in Chicago.

President Donald Trump, who appointed Lausch, has rhetorically bludgeoned Chicago for its handling of violent crime. Lausch seemed a prime candidate to take on the issue, with a history of prosecuting street gangs and corrupt cops.

A year later, Lausch is using fresh resources from Washington to assemble a new Gun Crimes Prosecution Team. His office is also pointing to gun-crime prosecution numbers that are higher than they’ve been in a decade. Still, he admits Chicago is grappling with a “very stubborn” gang and violence problem.

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More fed gun cases, but Chicago still trails other cities, March 19, 2017
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“We’re not patting ourselves on the back,” Lausch said in a conversation with reporters Wednesday at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. “I mean, we have a lot of work to do.”

Preliminary numbers show 197 defendants were charged with gun crimes in the Northern District of Illinois in the year ending on Sept. 30, according to Lausch’s office. That’s up from 177 defendants in the previous year and 130 the year before that.

The Sun-Times conducted its own analysis of gun-crime defendants, using numbers tallied by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, which counts defendants according to the most serious charge filed against them. The newspaper found the number of defendants increased by 75 percent between the 12-month period ending on March 31, 2016, and the same period ending on March 31, 2017. The number continued to rise by 29 percent through the end of March of this year.

Over 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, the Sun-Times found.

Source: Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts

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

But Pfleger said federal authorities need to focus on gun traffickers and 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,” he said.

In October 2016, the Sun-Times reported that Chicago’s gun prosecutions were lagging behind other urban areas. At the same time, killings were rising in Chicago. In 2016, there were 668 murders through Nov. 11, compared with 488 over the same period this year.

The killings in 2016 caught the attention of candidate Trump and he mentioned it when he accepted the Republican nomination.

Last year, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions asked for the resignation of all Obama-era U.S. attorneys, including Zach Fardon, who left the Chicago office in March 2017. Trump nominated Lausch to take Fardon’s place. He was sworn in on Nov. 22, 2017.

“We have more resources, I think, put into addressing violent crime than we’ve ever had before,” Lausch said, adding that Washington has let him hire 12 new prosecutors, and five will make up a new gun-crimes team.

That team will focus on gun crimes in parts of the city with high shooting and murder rates, Lausch said. He said it should pursue “impactful” cases — whether that means using a gun charge to take a violent individual off the street or taking down a whole gang with a more complex racketeering case. Last month, authorities announced racketeering charges against members of the Goonie Boss faction of the Gangster Disciples, tying it to nearly a dozen murders in Englewood.

Lausch also said there’s regular communication between prosecutors in his office and the office of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx to determine if it’s most effective to file certain cases in federal or state court. He pointed to carjacking cases filed in federal court earlier this year and said he hopes to get the word out that people caught committing gun crimes could not only face longer stints in prison — but they could wind up in a cell outside Illinois.

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

Lausch’s office finds itself at odds with local leaders in at least one aspect of policing in Chicago, though. Just last month, Sessions filed a statement of interest opposing the pending consent decree that would govern reform at the Chicago Police Department. Lausch’s name also appeared on the document.

Asked about the statement Wednesday, Lausch insisted that “the department’s position on the consent decree is stated” in the document.  He refused to give his opinion. And he said it hasn’t affected his office’s relationship with the police.