Suing Gang Members Won't Stop the Tragedy of Gun Violence

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Gun violence is Chicago’s greatest challenge, causing untold hurt and harm.

But Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposed Victims Justice Ordinance – which would authorize the City of Chicago to bring civil lawsuits against alleged gang members and the people around them, often unsuspecting family members — will not reduce gun violence. In fact, it will make intra-community violence worse by making poor communities poorer, making anti-violence workers’ jobs harder and further eroding police-community relations.

Aldermen should reject this ineffective civil asset forfeiture ordinance — a strategy that has been abandoned in multiple jurisdictions — which is scheduled to be discussed this week in the City Council Public Safety Committee.

A diversion from better solutions

We are part of a broad alliance of violence prevention specialists, faith-based community leaders, civil rights attorneys, gang violence experts and criminal justice practitioners who oppose this woefully misguided proposal.

The mayor’s proposed ordinance is a distraction from proven solutions that our communities desperately need, diverting the city’s finite legal resources away from potentially effective violence reduction efforts such as continuing to trace the origins of recovered crime guns and pushing for gun dealer accountability.

Despite its supporters’ claims, the ordinance does not give Chicago a new tool. State and federal laws give prosecutors ample power and legal mechanisms to seize assets associated with criminal activity. Every day, clients of the public defender’s office are ordered to pay restitution and fines, if they are convicted.

Vulnerable relatives of alleged gang members will be swept up in efforts to seize money, property and assets. The ordinance includes little protections to prevent, for example, a grandmother from being sued for her car after her grandson is pulled over while driving it.

Civil asset forfeiture is a tool ripe for abuse. It raises civil liberties concerns and offers little public safety value. It would be a step backward for Chicago after other jurisdictions have abandoned or reformed such tactics.

  • Illinois reformed its controversial civil asset forfeiture law in 2018, enhancing protections for property owners and protecting the presumption of innocence, none of which is included in the mayor’s proposal.
  • DuPage and other counties that have sought financial penalties against alleged gang members have not collected large sums.
  • Other jurisdictions across the country, such as New Mexico, have reformed or eliminated civil asset forfeiture without seeing an increase in crime.

A step backwards

This ordinance also relies on a severely outdated understanding of gangs. In Chicago, large gangs with well-defined leadership have been replaced by more than 800 small, loosely affiliated groups. Our experience and the research show that gun violence is often based on interpersonal conflicts and driven by social media. Suing people in proximity to hundreds of tiny factions that produce little revenue does nothing to solve this problem.

Finally, the ordinance relies on faulty, dated information about gang membership, raising grave concerns as to how the city will accurately identify people potentially subject to suit. The city has not substantially remedied issues with its gang database despite years of litigation and public scrutiny. Even if the current city government uses civil asset forfeiture in a judicious fashion without perpetuating the issues with the gang database, there is no guarantee that future administrations would do so.

The city should focus on effective violence prevention efforts and continue to reckon with and correct the structural factors that generate violence, including generations of divestment and neighborhood destabilization through criminalization and incarceration.

Chicago’s neighborhoods would be better served if City Council focused on increasing support for measures that move us closer to eliminating economic and racial inequality. Our city needs funding and support to improve educational and employment opportunities and access for young and justice-involved people. We need adequate transportation and housing, and for our leaders to fulfill the commitments of the Consent Decree. Chicagoans across the city, especially our children and youth, need tools and support to begin to heal the trauma inflicted by the current violence and the pandemic.

This ordinance is a significant step back. Serious problems deserve serious solutions. This ordinance is not that.

Sharone R. Mitchell, Jr. is Cook County Public Defender. Rev. Ciera Bates-Chamberlain is executive director of LIVE FREE Illinois, a nonprofit focused on ending gun violence and mass incarceration.

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