Updated: November 7, 2013 6:02PM
Chicago and Cook County need a Gun Court — a specialized court devoted full time to bringing gun law violators to trial promptly and imposing punishment with certainty.
Illinois and Cook County have high rates of incarceration, due in large part to the length of time it takes for gun cases to be heard and because offenders on probation and parole are re-arrested so frequently.
Illinois has more than 48,000 inmates in prison. Chicago has shootings every weekend. Our resources are in the wrong place. In addition to a gun court, we need more police officers and probation officers, with probation offices located in high-crime areas rather than in courthouses. We also need a better re-entry program for inmates being released from prison, offering employment, supervision and social supports.
Over the last 20 years, New York City has achieved dramatic success in reducing crime rates. Homicides have decreased by 82 percent, rapes by 77 percent, robberies by 84 percent, assaults by 67 percent and auto thefts by an astonishing 94 percent. The tactics used included a significantly increased police presence on the streets — 21 percent more officers than 20 years ago — a policing policy of stop-and-frisk, the establishment of a gun court in Brooklyn, and a probation system with an average caseload per probation officer of 43. Equally to the point, New York’s 575 probation officers are located in 19 different high-crime areas in the city’s five boroughs.
Before the gun court was established, New York City gun offenses took the courts a year to dispose and fewer than half of offenders went to prison or jail. After gun court was established, the length of time to trial was cut to 120 days, and 75 percent of offenders were sentenced to one year or more in prison. Jail costs and court congestion dropped significantly.
Did New York State’s prison population skyrocket because of all those extra cops and probation officers and a gun court? No. The state’s prison population dropped by 12,000 prisoners in 10 years ago, a savings of at least $260 million a year. Far better yet, New York’s streets are safer.
Probation is the preferred alternative to prison for non-violent offenders and those with less extensive criminal histories. In Cook County, 24,000 offenders are on probation, supervised by only 229 probation officers, meaning each officer handles an average of 105 cases. Yes, there are lower caseloads for officers supervising high-risk probationers, but Cook County needs more officers and in different locations. DuPage County probation caseloads average 65, and Lake County caseloads average 58.
In Cook County, probation officers work out of courthouses. In New York City, they are spread all over, with four Neighborhood Opportunity Network Centers where community and government agencies focus on finding jobs for those on probation.
In Illinois, offender re-entry is a big problem and a big opportunity. Employment for ex-offenders has to be addressed. Without employment opportunities, crime is inevitable. The majority of Illinois’ 48,000 inmates will be back on the streets in three years.
This will require cooperation between the public and private sectors and community organization. That’s a tall order, but not impossible if Cook County greatly expands probation services and places them in high-crime areas, gets serious about gun crimes, establishes a gun court and puts more police on the street.
Yes, Chicago has more police officers per citizen than other big cities, but the city also has many more shootings and gang members than other large cities.
Peter Bensinger was administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration from 1976 to 1981. He is also a former executive director of the Chicago Crime Commission and former director of the Illinois Department of Corrections.