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Cook County nixes gun-court idea

Tuesday, July 30, 2013
Chicago Sun-Times
by Frank Main

Cook County’s proposed gun court is dead on arrival.

That’s according to Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey, who was pushing for a special gun court to make punishment for illegal gun possession more “predictable and efficient.”

Fritchey said he received a letter from County President Toni Preckwinkle saying “Cook County criminal justice stakeholders agree that a specialized gun court would not reduce violence or improve efficiency.” Instead, there was “overwhelming support among the stakeholders for expanding intensive monitoring for juvenile gun offenders,” the April 9 letter said.

Fritchey said it was a reversal of Preckwinkle’s earlier public support for a gun court. At a news conference in late October, Preckwinkle had announced her goal of having a gun court open in Cook County by July 1.

After that news conference, a committee was formed to study gun courts in other cities and give the County Board recommendations on forming one here. But according to Fritchey, the committee has spent most of its time on its other mission: doling out $1.9 million in violence-prevention grants to community groups.

“The president has made it clear that a gun court is dead on arrival,” Fritchey said.

Juliana Stratton, Preckwinkle’s top criminal justice adviser, said the committee was “still deliberating” on the gun court proposal and the members “have yet to take a vote.”

But Fritchey said, “It’s a misrepresentation that the viability of the gun court is in the hands of the committee. The rug was pulled out from under the gun court before the committee spent one minute deliberating the idea.”

Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin said he wasn’t a fan of a gun court.

“Anyone who studies it would know it does not work,” said Suffredin, who also is on the committee.

Specialized courts — such as drug and mental-health courts — are useful because they’re aimed at providing services for defendants so they don’t become repeat offenders, Suffredin said. That’s not the focus of a gun court, he said.

Commissioner Edwin Reyes, another committee member, said a big problem was how to pay for another special court. “This was an unfunded mandate,” he said.

Fritchey said $300,000 was earmarked to start up a gun court. He said he’s not sure that a gun court is the answer to reducing violence in Chicago and the suburbs, “But I am positive that no one else has stepped forward with what definitively is the answer. The notion of a gun court never got a fair debate.”

The University of Chicago Crime Lab was among the organizations that supported the idea of a gun court. In a memo to Fritchey, the crime lab said a gun court has the potential to change gun-carrying behavior the same way drunken-driving enforcement changed drinking and driving behavior. The judge presiding over a gun court would have to consistently reinforce the message that the consequences for carrying a gun illegally are “definite and stringent,” the memo noted.

The crime lab called gun court “a promising tool for deterring illegal gun carrying and helping to reduce gun violence in Chicago.”

Other cities have operated successful gun courts. In New York City, for example, gun courts were set up in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx in 2003. In 2006, jail sentences for gun possession were one year or longer in 79 percent to 90 percent of cases, up from 45 percent to 51 percent in 2001, according to the New York Times. But the courts were closed after New York created a 3 1/2-year mandatory minimum prison sentence for illegal gun possession. Mayor Rahm Emanuel is calling for a similar mandatory-minimum law in Illinois.

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