Chief judge, ACLU fire back at Chicago mayor Lightfoot for saying judges should assume defendants are guilty

Chief Circuit Court Judge Tim Evans and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois fired back at Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Tuesday for suggesting judges should assume defendants are guilty — even before being tried and convicted — because of the “exacting standards that the state’s attorney has for charging a case.”

A former federal prosecutor, Lightfoot has faced an avalanche of criticism for her strongest attack yet on criminal court judges she blames for allowing repeat offenders back on the streets.

That’s because the mayor’s latest outburst seemed to ignore the presumption of innocence — a cornerstone of the legal system she studied and operated under.

Alexandra Block, senior supervising attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said it’s “sad to see a highly-trained lawyer and former prosecutor so badly mangle the meaning of our Constitution.”

Block noted a “charge based solely on assertions of police often has proven unreliable” in Chicago — as evidenced by the mountain of multi-million dollar settlement tied to wrongful convictions and allegations of police wrongdoing.

Even more troubling, Block said, are the mayor’s relentless attacks on bail reform. She said they ignore the fact that defendants accused of a crime, but not yet convicted, are “constitutionally entitled to an individualized determination about whether they can safely be released” to their communities.

“Bail reform returns people to their homes and jobs, allowing individuals and families to remain afloat,” Block was quoted as saying.

“Seeking easy answers to political pressures about gun violence, the mayor has repeatedly attacked bail reform, often with phony data. Mayor Lightfoot would be best served turning her energies to implementing real change in CPD and building relationships with community — essential steps for effective policing. Instead of searching for real solutions, she constantly searches for a scapegoat — whether it is the courts or youth across the city.”

Evans struck a similar chord, albeit less stridently.

“I respectfully disagree that the automatic detention in jail of defendants facing certain categories o charges is a constitutional practice under the United States and Illinois constitutions,” the chief judge and former alderperson was quoted as saying in a statement.

“Pre-trial detention serves a legitimate purpose [by] preventing the serious risk of committing crimes while on pre-trial release. Its purpose is not, however, to punish by depriving people of their liberty for crimes for which they have not been convicted.”

In making bail decisions, judges must be “unbiased” and weigh the evidence “in the same way as they and jurors do during a trial,” Evans said.

The law “requires that defendants shall be released on the least restrictive conditions that will reasonably ensure that they will appear in court and that will reasonably protect the community, witnesses victims and fellow citizens,” Evans added.

“In our justice system, the accuser is not the adjudicator. A judge — not a prosecutor or law enforcement official — must decide whether an individual shall be deprived of his or her liberty.”

Evans said that “contrary to the notion that all those charged with violent crimes are guilty,” 11% of the violent felony cases “disposed” between October 2017 and April 2022 were “dropped upon further investigation” by the state’s attorney.

Another 3.2% were found not guilty at trial, he said.

“This shows that charging an individual does not equate to guilt,” the chief judge’s statement says.

Citing recent studies by Loyola University and the University of Chicago Crime Lab, the chief judge’s statement continued: “There is no evidence that individuals released from pretrial detention are driving the current wave of violence,” adding that bail reform also isn’t to blame.

Lightfoot has repeatedly responded to Chicago’s seemingly relentless gang violence by alternately targeting State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Evans.

But in the last week, when a recent spate of shootings targeting three law enforcement officers, she responded with her most vociferous attack to date on criminal court judges.

“We don’t want to turn Cook County jail into a debtor’s prison. Nobody thinks that’s a good idea. We shouldn’t be locking up non-violent individuals just because they can’t afford to pay a bail,” said Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor.

“But given the exacting standards that the state’s attorney has for charging a case — which is proof beyond a reasonable doubt — when those charges are brought, these people are guilty. Of course they’re entitled to a presumption of innocence. Of course they’re entitled to their day in court. But residents in our community are also entitled to safety from dangerous people.”

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