Chicago’s historic crime wave has been blamed on gangs, guns and drugs. But now, harsh critics are taking it a step further – pointing the finger at the city’s judicial system and accusing it of being soft on criminals who keep pulling the trigger.
“The Cook County court system, largest in the country, is traditionally very, very soft on most gun charges,” said Jim Warren, a policy and politics columnist for U.S. News & World Report. Warren called Chicago’s judicial system a “joke.”
In 2016, 762 people were murdered in Chicago. More than 4,000 people were shot. Police recovered more than 5,000 guns from the streets.
Yet, federal prosecutors tried just 123 gun cases last year.
Chicago’s Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson argues known criminals shoot –and keep shooting-- because they know they can get away with it. The city’s top cop has pleaded for the city’s attorneys and judges to throw the book at repeat gun offenders.
“This has got to stop somewhere,” Johnson said. “Our children shouldn't have to keep paying the price for our inability to hold repeat gun offenders accountable for their actions."
According to data obtained by Fox News, criticism of Chicago’s judicial system might be warranted. While the U.S. Attorney’s office in Chicago prosecuted 123 gun crimes, nearby Kansas City – which has a fraction of the population and lower crime – prosecuted nearly triple that total amount: 340 cases. Detroit prosecuted more with 171 cases. And even New York City, where the crime and gun problem pales in comparison to Chicago, is not far behind with 72 cases.
The U.S. Attorney for the northern district of Illinois, Zach Fardon, was asked to resign last week as part of a purge of Obama administration holdovers. In a scathing exit letter, Fardon wrote that he is a non-partisan and did his best to bring convictions by regularly talking with neighbors in the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods. He said his office needs a staggering 20 more prosecutors to get the job done.
A spokesperson for Fardon wrote in an e-mail that in 2016 the office prosecuted its highest number of cases in 20 years and chose cases based on impact over volume.
"One case like the recent Hobos gang prosecution takes years and enormous resources to bring, but we bring it because it’s the right thing to do, without regard to statistics,” Joe Fitzpatrick wrote.
The State’s attorney for Cook County, Kim Foxx, admits the county is in a “crisis.”
“We have an issue of credibility with our criminal justice system,” Foxx said.
Foxx and the Cook County Chief Judge, Timothy Evans, say the court system doesn’t deserve the full blame. Fighting crime, they say, is a group effort that includes local and federal agencies.
"If we want to stop violence, we have to go after people who are doing violent crime," Foxx said. "And that’s an obligation we have to have with our partners in federal law enforcement."
"To simply say lock ‘em up, keep ‘em away longer, in my view, that’s not the total answer," Evans said.
There is a possible solution on the horizon: a new bill recently cleared a state senate committee in Springfield that would instruct courts to lengthen penalties for repeat gun offenders and require judges to publicly explain why they gave a lighter sentence.
And, Foxx just announced the launch of a new gun-fighting unit in the city’s two most dangerous neighborhoods on the south and west side that for the first time will pair federal prosecutors with state and local police. It’s intended to result in much more immediate and thorough gun cases being prosecuted.
Foxx says the new gun unit will also remove more firearms from the streets. Chicago currently recovers more illegal guns annually than New York and Los Angeles combined.
"The frustration that I’ve had when we talk about guns is this complacency about guns that we have in Cook County," Foxx said. "I told someone, it’s like we have the Bulls, pizza and we have guns in the city of Chicago."
Matt Finn is a Fox News correspondent based in the Chicago bureau. Follow him on Twitter: @MattFinnFNC