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Angela Caputo Headshot

A Skewed System of Checks and Balances

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Chicago's style of justice has been under loads of scrutiny lately. Police are raising eyebrows for writing up more than 600,000 contact cards so far this year (that's not far short of the number of stop-and-frisk arrests recorded in New York during a peak in 2011). The idea is that by making lots of street contact, officers can thwart violence or gather intelligence that will deter more serious crimes.

"If they grab you and if you ain't got what they looking for, which is guns and drugs," Antwan Franklin, a 30-year-old with a long rap sheet that includes a slew of dead-end trespassing arrests, explained during our conversation on WBEZ's "Afternoon Shift" last Friday, "they feel like, 'We'll lock you up for something petty that we know won't stick, but you have to go through the process anyway.'"

Franklin was referring to misdemeanor charges, which account for the bulk of the arrests made in Chicago. More often than not -- eight of every 10 times -- those types of low-level criminal charges are thrown out in Cook County's criminal courts, a recent Chicago Reporter investigation found. Those dead-end cases have cost Cook County taxpayers nearly $800 million during the past seven years.

Police have gotten more than their share of criticism for a policing strategy that ends up cycling people through lock ups and the criminal courts with few results. But what about Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez and city lawyers who pursue charges, like loitering and trespassing, only to drop them? Should there be more prosecutorial discretion up front? And if prosecutors looked harder at the charges, would it change the types, or number, of arrests that police pursue? These are all questions we relish in debating at The Chicago Reporter.

Harvey Grossman, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, thinks so. "Prosecutors play an important part in this," he said. If prosecutors don't act as a check in the judicial system, he added, "it's a denial of [defendants'] rights to be summarily arrested with no intent to prosecute."

In Cook County and Chicago, the checks-and-balance system is skewed. As a result, thousands of people sit in the county jail each year on charges that most likely wouldn't warrant incarceration even if they were found guilty. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands more carry rap sheets that follow them -- with or without a conviction.