Opinion: Federal prosecutors in Chicago going hard on gun crimes
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Last week, The Sun-Times ran a story titled “Gun Shy” claiming that despite promises, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago is bringing fewer federal gun cases. The Sun-Times then followed with an editorial questioning my office’s commitment to fighting violence. The article was misleading, and the editorial missed the mark.
Our office’s gun numbers are actually up. Early this year, in reaction to the violence spike, we decided to take on more gun cases than we have historically. In 2016, using the Sun-Times numbers, we charged 84 defendants with federal gun crimes, which is not only up from 2015, but is 20 cases higher than the 20-year average for our office, and 15 cases higher than the 10-year average. In 2016, firearms cases as a percentage of our overall prosecutions reached their highest level in over a decade. These facts are consistent with everything I said during my speech at the City Club, the entirety of which can be found at : https://www.justice.gov/usao-ndil/pr/remarks-us-attorney-zachary-t-fardon-city-club-chicago-sept-26-2016.
The Sun-Times article notes that in 2014 our federal gun numbers dropped down to 57, well below our historic averages, before climbing again in 2015. In 2014, though, our office’s resources bottomed out due to sequestration; a federal hiring freeze plus normal lawyer attrition (not “layoffs” as the Sun-Times reports) bled our office down from 172 lawyers to below 130. So we operated that year with under 75 percent of our attorney work force.
Since late 2014, we have been rebuilding and rehiring. We’re not yet at full force but we are getting close. Meanwhile, about one-third of our federal prosecutors are new. It takes time for new prosecutors to learn the job and reach productivity. Nonetheless, our team is working hard and productivity is on the rise.
Comparing our office with other districts, as the editorial selectively seeks to do, is apples-to-oranges. Different districts have different state gun laws and local prosecutor offices, and the federal gun efforts must be balanced in coordination with those state and local features. Also, in 2014, many other districts were less impacted by sequestration than we were due to their lower lawyer attrition rates.
Our office serves more than 9 million citizens across northern Illinois and has critical responsibilities in areas such as terrorism, cybercrime, heroin, public corruption and major frauds. We will not and cannot abandon the critical work we do in these areas. Despite that, nearly half of our attorney resources are currently focused on violence. In addition to gun crime, we are prosecuting street gangs, violent criminals, and drug cartels. And we are in the midst of a huge police pattern-and-practice investigation that, as I explained at the City Club, is directly connected to our long-term goals to combat violent crime in Chicago.
Ours is not a numbers game. We seek impact, not volume. One case like the Hobos gang prosecution takes years and enormous resources to bring. We bring it without regard to impact on our overall statistics because that is the right thing to do. And one investigation like the pattern-and-practice takes substantial resources and generates no case statistics for us. But we bring it, because that is the right thing to do.
At the U.S. Attorney’s Office, our anti-violence commitment goes beyond prosecuting cases. We work closely and thoughtfully to prevent violence before it happens. This year, we have led or participated in dozens of parolee reentry forums, youth outreach forums, violence reduction gang call-in meetings, and community trust roundtables. Data has shown the efficacy of such prevention and deterrence efforts. Where we can stop crime rather than prosecute it, that too is the right thing to do.
All of that said, we all have to do more and better. I have said repeatedly that we cannot prosecute our way out of the violence problem in Chicago. It will take a multi-faceted approach including, among other things, improved educational opportunities, jobs and social services. Criminal enforcement is an important part of the solution, and our office’s commitment to doing our best on that front will not waver.
The women and men of our Chicago U.S. Attorney’s Office are dedicated, bright, passionate and committed. In the ongoing fight against violent crime, they routinely sacrifice nights and weekends to push, to make a difference, to make our communities safer and better. They are honorable public servants who care deeply about this city and this crisis.
No spun statistics can change that.
Zach Fardon is the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, commissioned by President Barack Obama on Oct. 23, 2013.