A recent story and editorial in the Sun Times raised the issue of creating either a specialty gun court or a special call devoted to gun cases as part of the process of determining bond for defendants.
Gun courts have been studied and, as Chief Judge Evans maintains, the evidence would not support adding a specialty gun court in Cook County. This was also my position following an advisory committee study of this issue in 2012.
Is there a better case to be made for a special gun call?
According to this proposal, gun cases would be adjudicated as they are now but special attention would be paid to such cases the first time a defendant appears in court when his or her bond is set.
Whether this is a good or bad idea depends on how it is implemented, given what we know about how bond and conditions of release generally should be set.
Cook County’s criminal justice stakeholders agree that when conditions of release are set, the judge needs to know if the defendant is a flight risk or a danger to public safety. That is why Cook County is using a risk assessment tool developed by the Arnold Foundation. It is crucial to avoid detaining people in the jail who do not need to be detained to avoid damaging their chances for a decent life.
We cannot allow a singular focus on guns to prevent judges from carefully considering all facts in a case. Is the defendant in court for the first time in his or her life? Is he or she working, studying or raising a family? Does the science of risk evaluation tell us they are at low risk of missing court, re-offending, or committing a violent act?
Possession cases do not roll off an assembly line. Every person is different, as is every charged offense. If 1,000 people are arrested for gun possession, there will be 1,000 different reasons and circumstances. Some people carry a gun for self-defense. Some out of fear of the area where they live or work. And admittedly, others carry a gun for unlawful purposes.
We have to remember that behind the decision to carry a gun there may be years of physical and emotional abuse. People who make bad choices have often endured horrific trauma in their lives. There are many reasons why the criminal justice system treats gun possession as a felony. But we also have to respond from a public health perspective and ensure that community-based treatment is available to deal with the trauma that underlies the decision of some to carry a gun. If our only response to guns lies within the criminal justice system, the cycle of violence will never end.
We have to remember that setting bond is a judicial decision made after hearing all the facts and circumstances surrounding the individual and the arrest. A gun call where everyone is treated the same uses far too broad a brush, and by definition ignores mitigating circumstances.
We need to know more about how this focus on guns fits into the overall operation of bond court. Hopefully, the stakeholders can work together to carefully evaluate this proposal and promote increased safety for all of us.
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