In an article on March 19, the Sun-Times criticizes the number of federal weapons cases brought by the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago in 2016 (“More fed gun cases, but Chicago trails other cities”). The article’s simplistic assessment of the data was unfair, and its criticism of the Chicago office’s commitment to prosecuting cases involving guns and violence is unfounded. Contrary to the suggestion of the article, the Chicago U.S. attorney’s office continues to be proactive and aggressive in its approach to the surge of violence in Chicago.
Prosecution of offenses involving guns and violence remains a top priority. During his tenure as U.S. attorney, Zach Fardon established a violent crimes section dedicated to the prosecution of violent offenses. In early 2016, Fardon asked prosecutors in every section of the office to assist in prosecuting gun cases. The response was overwhelming. In an unprecedented commitment to the prosecution of firearms cases, the office currently has AUSAs from every section, including our civil division, investigating and prosecuting firearms cases.
Contrary to the suggestion in the article, the office’s increase in prosecution of gun cases was not a reaction to a prior Sun-Times article in October 2016. Indeed, the statistics cited in the recent article belie that notion. The recent article correctly notes that for fiscal year 2016, the office opened 105 weapons cases, up from 73 in the prior year. That reflects an increase of approximately 44 percent in one year and, most importantly, the increase occurred before the October 2016 Sun Times article. The bottom line is that the Chicago office is prosecuting more gun cases annually than it has in more than a decade. And, importantly, in 2016 the percentage of the office’s total cases that are firearms cases — approximately 23 percent — is higher than it has been in a decade.
Regardless of the office’s substantial increase in firearms prosecutions, the numbers alone do not tell the full story. In comparing Chicago with a handful of federal districts, the Sun-Times chose to ignore important factors that explain why some federal districts have higher numbers of gun prosecutions than others. In particular, the penalties for felons in possession of firearms vary by state and often depend on the nature of an offender’s prior convictions.
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Contrary to the premise in the Sun-Times article, it is not always advantageous to bring federal, as opposed to state, charges for firearms offenses. In Illinois, for example, the recidivism statute — which penalizes offenders with lengthy criminal histories by enhancing the sentence to six to 30 years — requires only two prior predicate convictions, whereas the federal recidivism statute requires three such convictions. In other words, a repeat offender caught with a gun in Illinois often faces a lengthier possible prison sentence in state court than federal.
While federal prosecution of gun offenders is a critical piece of any violence reduction strategy, it is not a panacea. The Sun-Times article cites St. Louis and Detroit as cities with more federal gun prosecutions than Chicago, but in spite of those increased prosecutions, those cities had higher per capita murder rates in 2016 than Chicago. The violence problem in Chicago is complex and has no easy fix. While federal prosecutions are important, it is clear that meaningful reduction in violence requires a multi-faceted approach that addresses some of the social and economic challenges that are the root causes of the problem.
The Sun-Times article also unfairly criticizes the office for prosecuting gun possession cases, as opposed to gun trafficking cases. In fact, we have prosecuted significant gun cases of all types; just this week, for example, John Thomas pleaded guilty to unlawfully dealing 77 firearms. More importantly, however, since a firearms possession charges carries a greater maximum penalty (10 years) than a trafficking charge (five years), there is often little benefit in using our limited resources to pursue trafficking offenses as opposed to possession charges.
Our office has responsibility for federal prosecutions in the Northern District of Illinois, which covers 18 counties and a population of over nine million. We have 156 assistant U.S. attorneys, which is a fraction of the state prosecutors who cover the same geographic area.
The office has responsibility for prosecuting not only gun cases, but also public corruption, national security, narcotics and financial fraud, to name a few. As a result, the office focuses on bringing cases that will have meaningful impact on violence, without an eye towards numbers.
For example, the office brings charges against violent gangs and drug organizations, such as the recent Hobos cases and the racketeering indictments of nearly three dozen Latin Kings, despite the extraordinary prosecutorial resources required by such cases. Our efficacy in fighting violence simply cannot be judged by the number of gun cases without taking into account the impact of the cases we bring.
Consistent with the recent directive of the attorney general, the Chicago U.S. attorney’s office will continue to make prosecutions of violent crime one of the highest priorities in our district. We will continue to work collaboratively with our federal and local law enforcement partners to ensure that we maximize our limited resources to have as great an impact as possible on reducing violence in Chicago and throughout northern Illinois.
Federal prosecution alone will not solve the violence problem, but we take our role very seriously. The Sun-Times article, in choosing to suggest otherwise, is simply inaccurate.
Joel R. Levin, acting U.S. attorney, Northern District of Illinois