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A former prosecutor comes to the defense of Cook County's criminal justice system

Friday, July 01, 2016
Crain's Chicago Business

Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, inher June 14 guest essay, provides a slanted view of the criminal justice system in Cook County that does a disservice to the hundreds of law enforcement personnel who work every day to apprehend and prosecute criminals in our community. In addition, her sweeping generalities shed little light on the real problems that exist in the system.

It is admittedly an imperfect system because human beings are involved. There are mistakes that should be corrected and some bad apples that should be removed. But the great majority of police officers, prosecutors and judges strive to see that those breaking the law, especially violent criminals, are held accountable for their misdeeds.

Van Cleve begins by referring to photos of convicted criminals on the wall in the gang crimes unit of the Cook County state's attorney's office. From her description, one might think these are photos of young men on their way to choir practice who were unfairly arrested and ramrodded through the system by ruthless police and uncaring prosecutors.

The reality is that those pictured are, for the most part, hard-core gang members who went to prison for murdering or maiming other young men and women, most of them minorities. The photos serve as a reminder of the carnage visited on our community by street gangs. Interestingly, there is another wall at Chicago police headquarters that displays the badges of all officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

Later in her column, Van Cleve opines that the convictions are not seen as “human tragedies” but “prizes to be won.” Of course, these are human tragedies, not because street thugs have been convicted but because innocent lives have been lost, often for no or little reason.

The author then notes that the entire legal culture “often acted in criminal ways.” As support for this conclusion, she mentions rude judges, practical jokes and bullying of a public defender. These may be things to be noted and corrected, but they are far from criminal acts.

Van Cleve refers to surveys that show some prosecutors and judges believe that police perjury in criminal cases has occurred. This is a legitimate issue but must be placed in context. With the hundreds of cases that are tried every year, it would be foolish to say that some officers didn't tell less than the full truth on the stand, just as it would be foolish to say that parties in divorce cases have never lied or that academics have never submitted articles supported by invalid data. In any large group of people, there will be some who cross the line, whether they be defendants, judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers or witnesses. The challenge is to address what can be done as a system to make the line-crossing less frequent.

In fact,when I was state's attorney, our prosecutors, including supervisors, brought to my attention a number of cases where they believed police officers had lied, and we acted on that information. This included theSpecial Operations Sectionthat was acting outside the law. Their misdeeds were discovered by assistant state's attorneys, and several officers eventually were prosecuted.

There are a number of serious problems in the criminal justice system worthy of our attention and discussion. They include witness identifications through lineups or photo arrays; multiple continuances that delay justice for both defendant and victim; factors in pretrial detention; the scope of prosecutorial discretion; and the method for selecting judges. Unfortunately, Van Cleve is content to slam the justice system with broad generalities that do little to advance the debate on legitimate issues.

Richard Devine was Cook County state's attorney from 1996 to 2008. He is now of counsel at Chicago law firm Cozen O'Connor.



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