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Joyce Foundation Recommendations For Next Cook County State’s Attorney

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The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office is among the largest prosecutors’ offices in the country. And with that stature comes heightened scrutiny of the office’s policies and procedures against the backdrop of increasing concerns about crime, the heated debate on “progressive” vs. “traditional” approaches to public safety and questions about the appropriate role of a prosecutor in the administration of justice. In recent years, the office has not always fared well in the spotlight.

The next State’s Attorney faces the tall task of increasing the public’s trust in the office through reforms and restoring the ranks of a depleted workforce to implement those reforms. The success of the next State’s Attorney is critical to Chicago and Cook County achieving real and perceived progress on public safety and reducing gun violence. The Joyce Foundation is invested in supporting that success.

In that vein, our Gun Violence Prevention and Justice Reform Program offers here four sets of recommendations, many of which are aligned with ideas that candidates for Cook County State’s Attorney have offered as part of their proposed platforms. We believe the next State’s Attorney could advance the shared goals of reducing crime and promoting public safety in the county in a fair and just way by adopting the following recommendations:

  1. Build and support the team necessary to bring reform to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office.
  2. Prioritize improving trust and legitimacy with county residents.
  3. Examine and address racial disparities in firearm prosecutions; and
  4. Support the implementation of Illinois’ existing gun laws.
Recommendations:
1. Build and Support the Team Necessary to Bring Reform to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office

The next Cook County State’s Attorney (SA) should surround themselves with a likeminded leadership team with diverse skill sets, a commitment to reform, willingness to leverage all the tools available to the office, including policy and data transparency, and a commitment to be innovative and inclusive in their approach. The choices of First Assistant State’s Attorney as well as the heads of the Criminal Prosecutions Bureau and Felony Review will be important signals of the direction of the office and should be filled with savvy leaders skilled at navigating complex policy dynamics. Additionally, a strong Director of Policy will be key to prioritizing and implementing critical reforms in this environment.

To support this new leadership team, the next SA should commit to developing staff within the SA's office. A potential partner to support such development is VSV Leadership (VSV), which provides executive coaching and consulting support to prosecutors' offices nationwide through a range of services tailored to meet the specific needs of each office. These include office assessments, skill-building and strategy workshops, policy implementation, and program development support. These offerings originated from the development of "Prosecution Leaders of Now," an executive education program for senior-level leaders in prosecution offices, hosted by Stanford University. The Joyce Foundation recently funded VSV to provide consulting, coaching, and implementation support to prosecutors' offices in the Great Lakes Region, including in Cook County.

2. Prioritize Improving Trust and Legitimacy with County Residents

a. Develop and implement an office wide procedural justice framework. Research shows that procedural justice can build trust and increase the legitimacy of law enforcement authorities within communities. Perceptions of legitimacy improve compliance and cooperation through improved attitudes toward law enforcement, making procedural justice a useful tool in improving public safety. Through the support and technical assistance of peer organizations like the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (APA), an increasing number of prosecutors’ offices are implementing procedural justice frameworks, including Columbus, Ohio; St. Paul, Minnesota; Miami, Florida; and Salt Lake City, Utah, among others. With support from the Joyce Foundation, APA and the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School are now providing technical assistance to establish similar frameworks in Hennepin County, Minnesota; Marion County, Indiana; Milwaukee County, Wisconsin; and most recently Cook County, Illinois. The next SA should continue this important work.

b. Improve homicide clearance rates. In cities like Chicago; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Baltimore, Maryland, less than one-third of homicide cases are cleared by arrest. Chicago experiences stark racial disparities in homicide clearance rates, with rates for victims of color, and Black men in particular, lower than every other racial group. Clearance rates for homicides perpetrated with a firearm are also especially low. Forthcoming research by Dr. Kathryn Bocanegra and Dr. Julian Thompson at the University of Illinois at Chicago supported by the Joyce Foundation reveals that families of victims often find the investigative process opaque and confusing, leading to frustration and alienation from the system. This research will offer several ways in which the SA’s office can improve clearance rates in partnership with other system stakeholders in the region, some of which we outline here:

  • In collaboration with the Chicago Police Department (CPD), the SA’s office should:
    • Commission and deploy an updated Fourth Amendment search and seizure training curriculum. Currently, CPD officers must make several on-the-spot decisions about how to apply Fourth Amendment case law to a particular situation. These decisions often lead to intense scrutiny from prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges.
    • Examine evidentiary standards with gang-related homicides, witness engagement challenges, and effective processes to maximize cooperation of witnesses.
    • Examine the “override” policy, analyze trends related to how frequently “override” cases are dismissed by the office, and the legal, ethical, and safety implications involved in categorical dismissal of “override” charges in homicide cases.
    • Commit to the regular release of clear and transparent data related to homicide investigations, particularly around homicides that result in an arrest and charge.
  • Conduct a comprehensive, widespread public education campaign on homicide investigative processes. Part of such an awareness campaign should include the development of a guidebook for families of victims to help explain the protocols and policies that structure the detectives’ work, which includes the names of all coordinating agencies and their contact information. Most guides across the country focus on emotional healing or burial support and not the practical elements of an investigation. This kind of tool would be the first of its kind and provide an important opportunity to build trust with impacted communities who are often unaware of and confused by the investigative process. It could increase community participation in investigations, thereby allowing more cases to be closed.

c. Maximize the office’s use of and coordination around crime gun intelligence tools. Crime gun intelligence tools, like eTrace and NIBIN, are becoming increasingly important to gun crime investigations. When implemented comprehensively, these tools can help law enforcement disrupt the supply of crime guns, identify and apprehend offenders, and prevent future acts of gun violence. Importantly, crime gun intelligence tools have been shown to increase clearance rates for gun crimes ranging from homicide to aggravated assault. In April 2024, the U.S. Department of Justice established a new Crime Gun Intelligence Center (CGIC) in Chicago to enhance law enforcement’s capacity to investigate and prevent gun violence. Already, the CGIC is coordinating among thirteen federal, state, and local agencies in the region including the SA’s office and it is important that the SA’s office remains involved in this effort.

3. Examine and Address Racial Disparities in Firearm Prosecutions

Continue and expand diversion for non-violent gun offenses. The SA’s office should continue to incorporate appropriate diversion opportunities for non-violent gun offenses and expand these programs where appropriate. Prosecutor led gun diversion programs (PLGDP) are an emerging approach used by prosecutors’ offices to increase efficiency in their offices, reduce racial disparities, and to address root causes of gun carrying. Importantly, new research from the University of Chicago has shown that these approaches can address the racially disparate punishment of illegal gun possession and can be implemented without compromising public safety. PLGDPs take several forms, and vary in structure and approach across the country and in the region. They may be structured as pre-plea (when the participant is not required to plead to the charge to enter the program) or post-plea (when the participant pleads guilty to enter the program); accept felonies, misdemeanors, or both; target specific charges (e.g., drug, or property); and range in approach, from ordering individuals to lengthy periods of drug or mental health treatment to offering short educational classes or job training.

Since 2021, the SA’s team based at the Bridgeview Courthouse piloted a narrow gun diversion program for nonviolent gun cases, which is separate and aside from other gun diversion programs being offered in the state. To date, the Bridgeview program, which is being delivered in partnership with the community-based organization GRO community, has shown significant promise and is currently being evaluated by the University of Chicago Crown School of Social Work with funding from the Joyce Foundation. Early results show a high completion rate (89%) and low levels of reoffending among program participants (5%), and a 72% reduction in problem behaviors identified in early assessments at the start of the program. As a result, judges from several other County courthouses have expressed interest in the program. Results from the full evaluation are expected in early 2025.

Again, the Bridgeview program is separate and distinct from other gun diversion programs in the state like the Illinois’ First Time Weapon Offender Program, which provides judges the discretion to assign 18- to 20-year-olds who do not have prior violent crime convictions to a special probation that, if completed successfully, would drop their charges. While both programs have similar eligibility requirements that focus on non-violent gun offenses, the Bridgeview pilot mandates a structured curriculum for program participants not included in the First Time Weapon Offender Program and is facilitated by the prosecutor’s office. More specifically, completion of the Bridgeview program requires a curriculum of cognitive behavioral group therapy, or CBT; individual counseling; and mentorship sessions, which are accompanied by case management and other services provided by GRO Community. It is because of these features that some communities who have been reluctant to explore gun diversion programs are experimenting with these prosecutor-led, tailored approaches.

4. Support the Implementation of Illinois’ Existing Gun Laws

a. Support the implementation of Illinois’ Firearms Restraining Order (FRO) law by designating a FRO lead within the SA’s office. Illinois’ Firearms Restraining Order law provides for the temporary removal of firearms via a civil process when the possessor is at risk of harm to self or others. Research shows that the use of these extreme risk laws prevents suicides and mass shootings, but since its enactment in 2019, Illinois FRO law has been used inconsistently around the state. The next SA should designate a FRO lead within the SA office, as recommended by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Violence Solutions (CGVS) and Everytown for Gun Safety. As the U.S. Department of Justice’s primary technical assistance provider on extreme risk laws, CGVS has noted that a dedicated FRO lead in a prosecutor’s office can oversee FROs from the decision to file a petition through final disposition, ensure that all ASAs are trained on when and how to use a FRO, develop evidence informed protocols for the office, ensure proper data collection, build relationships with other FRO stakeholders in the jurisdiction to facilitate effective case processing, and network with FRO practitioners and experts nationally to share best practices and problem-solve implementation challenges.

The FRO lead should also have responsibility for ensuring that all ASAs are trained on when and how to use Illinois' Clear and Present Danger law, which requires law enforcement officials to report when a person demonstrates threatening physical or verbal behavior such as violent, suicidal, or assaultive threats, actions, or other behavior such that the person is posing a clear and present danger to themselves or others. Together, the FRO and the Clear and Present Danger law offer tools for law enforcement to ensure the disarmament of firearms owners in periods of crisis, but law enforcement officials have sometimes been unsure which tool to use in which circumstance. Designating a single lead to support training across both laws will help ASAs use the best approach to fit each set of circumstances.

b. Support the removal of firearms from people whose Firearm Owner Identification (FOID) cards have been revoked. A recent report from the Cook County Sheriff’s Office found that of the 39,719 individuals whose FOID cards had been revoked or suspended in Cook County at the end of 2023, 27,043, or 68 percent, had not turned in the required Firearm Disposition Record, which accounts for the transfer of firearms. The lack of firearm dispossession has been an issue in Illinois for years. Following the mass shooting at the Henry Pratt Co. in Aurora in 2019, it was discovered that the shooter was among tens of thousands in the state who whose FOID card had been revoked but were able to keep their firearms. Soon after, Illinois State Police made changes to its own processes and procedures to improve dispossession rates and created a portal for local law enforcement listing every revoked cardholder statewide. But the issue persists. The next SA should collaborate with the Cook County Sheriff’s office, CPD, and Illinois State Police to develop remedies, which could include seeking a search warrant to allow specially designated law enforcement officers into the home of a person with a revoked FOID card to search for firearms (as recommended by CGVS).

c. Support the consistent removal of firearms from domestic abusers subject to orders of protection. As of 2022, firearms were used in more than half of domestic violence deaths in Illinois. Under current Illinois law, orders of protection that contain a firearms remedy are inconsistently enforced, leaving survivors of domestic and intimate partner violence with an active order of protection vulnerable to firearms injury at the hands of their abusers. This was the case for Karina and Daniela Gonzalez, a mother and daughter in Little Village who were fatally shot by Karina’s husband despite the presence of an order of protection and the revocation of his FOID card. The next SA should address this loophole by consistently seeking court-ordered firearms removal as an element of a criminal order of protection and ensuring that the defendant complies with the order as recommended in a 2021 report by the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence and Firearms, and by connecting survivors of domestic and intimate partner violence with advocates to obtain civil orders that would require removal. The next SA should also require training for all ASAs and community-based organizations with whom the SA partners to ensure they understand the process for helping survivors obtain an order of protection, seek the firearms remedy when appropriate, and ensure that the court orders that the remedy be enforced through dispossession.

d. Support the emerging Community Violence Intervention (CVI) ecosystem in Chicago. CVI strategies are tailored community-centered initiatives that engage individuals and groups to prevent and disrupt cycles of violence and retaliation and to deliver services that save lives, address trauma, provide opportunity, and improve the physical, social, and economic conditions that drive violence. Chicago’s CVI efforts may offer a partner for the next SA by helping to engage and protect victims of gun violence with whom the SA interacts and by helping to divert at-risk individuals from further involvement in gun violence. To that end, the next SA should ensure that ASAs receive training on, for example, Chicago CRED’s partnership with the public defender’s office to offer CVI interventions towards helping reduce sentences.

e. Join Prosecutors Against Gun Violence (PAGV). PAGV is an independent, non-partisan coalition of leading prosecutors from across the country focusing on gun violence prevention strategies ranging from policy advocacy to improved enforcement of existing laws. Launched in 2014 by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance and Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, the organization is now co-chaired by Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark and Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein. The organization meets at least annually to discuss emerging best practices, share case studies, and meet with other stakeholders to help advance gun violence prevention strategies in their respective jurisdictions.

About The Joyce Foundation

Joyce is a nonpartisan, private foundation that invests in evidence-informed public policies and strategies to advance racial equity and economic mobility for the next generation in the Great Lakes region.

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