Fact-check: Lightfoot wrong in claim that Cook County criminal courts are ‘shut down’

Under pressure to address Chicago’s ongoing surge in gun violence, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the county’s criminal court system is failing to do its part holding dangerous offenders accountable.

“I’m calling upon our county partners, and particularly those in the criminal courts: Open up the courts,” Lightfoot said at a June 28 news conference following an especially bloody weekend in which more than 70 were shot, at least six fatally. “People need their day in court. Justice delayed is justice denied, and you’re hurting not only those who are charged but also those in the community.”

“Our criminal courts have been shut down for 15 months,” Lightfoot continued, echoing similar claims she has made about the Cook County Circuit Court in recent months while defending the city’s efforts to combat the wave of murders and shootings.

Lightfoot’s claim the courts are somehow responsible for the uptick in crime has been a frequent talking point. In April, she said the county had gone 13 months without criminal trials, and again, in June, she said the courts had been “relatively inactive and closed for criminal trials since March 2020.”

Big city crime waves have been in the national spotlight since the pandemic began, and a group of aldermen convened a special council meeting Friday to address the Lightfoot administration’s response ahead of the July Fourth weekend.

City officials contend the increase in violence is slowing, pointing out how the number of murders and shootings declined this June from the same month last year. However, Chicago has seen slightly more murders this year than it had by this time in 2020, which was one of the city’s most violent since the mid-1990s. Shootings are also up from last year, according to Chicago Police Department data, and have risen nearly 60% compared with 2019.

Last year, Cook County did suspend jury trials amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Contrary to what Lightfoot claimed, however, the county’s criminal courts have continued their other operations over the past 15 months, and jury trials started up again this March.

We contacted Lightfoot’s office asking for evidence to back up her claim but did not receive a response.

Cook County’s criminal court system continued operating during pandemic

When the pandemic hit, Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans responded by temporarily suspending all but the most urgent cases. By July, the courts had begun to resume many of their other operations — such as plea hearings, sentencings and bench trials — largely via videoconference.

Both criminal and civil jury trials remained paused, however, thanks to an Illinois Supreme Court decision suspending the state’s speedy trial law, which the court recently announced will be reinstated Oct. 1, 2021.

Postponing all jury trials and scaling back other operations in response to the pandemic has led to a massive backlog of felony cases in Cook County, according to an Injustice Watch investigation, leaving hundreds of people in jail for more than a year.

Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans

Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file photo

Lightfoot didn’t claim the courts were backlogged, however. She claimed they were shut down.

On March 22, 2021, Evans allowed potential jurors to once again file into the Leighton Criminal Courthouse in Chicago after the year-long hiatus.

So even if Lightfoot had contended — as she has in the past — that Cook County is not conducting criminal trials, she would be wrong. Although plans are still in the works to ramp up the reopening of criminal in-person proceedings, it’s clear they have resumed. There have been 27 criminal jury trials since March 22, according to Evans’ office.

What’s more, jury trials make up a small fraction of a court’s work. A recent study by the National Center for State Courts found 92% of the felony cases it reviewed were resolved through guilty pleas or dismissals. In Cook County, only 10% of all cases that did go to trial in 2019 went to a jury rather than a bench trial, according to an April press release from Evans.

“While in-person proceedings have been limited, the courts never really closed, and the administration of justice — including hearings, bench trials, guilty pleas, findings of innocence and dismissal of cases — have continued throughout the past 15 months,” a June 14 press release from Evans’ office read. “It is disingenuous for anyone to say that the courts have been closed.”

Between the beginning of April 2020 and the end of May 2021, Evans’ office reported, approximately 128,000 criminal cases were adjudicated, including nearly 13,000 guilty pleas, 1,000 bench trials and 114,000 other dispositions, such as cases being dismissed.

Our ruling

Lightfoot said Cook County’s criminal courts “have been shut down for 15 months.”

Her office did not respond with evidence to back that up.

In the past, Lightfoot has more narrowly claimed criminal trials were not being held in Cook County. Even if that was what she intended to say, it would still be inaccurate because jury trials resumed this year in late March, and bench trials were held on a limited basis during the pandemic.

What’s more, research shows most criminal cases never make it to trial. Instead, they are resolved by other means, such as guilty pleas or dismissals — all of which have continued in Cook County during the pandemic.

We rate Lightfoot’s claim False.


FALSE — The statement is not accurate.

Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.

The Better Government Association runs PolitiFact Illinois, the local arm of the nationally renowned, Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking enterprise that rates the truthfulness of statements made by governmental leaders and politicians. BGA’s fact-checking service has teamed up weekly with the Sun-Times, in print and online. You can find all of the PolitiFact Illinois stories we’ve reported together here.

Sources

Video: Lightfoot news conference, Twitter, June 28, 2021

“‘I feel like the city of Chicago has no love left.’ Friend, family remember women killed in mass shootings, as mayor decries ‘street justice,’” Chicago Sun-Times, June 28, 2021

Chicago Police Department citywide crime statistics, accessed July 2, 2021

Press release, Circuit Court of Cook County, June 26, 2020

Press release, Circuit Court of Cook County, Feb. 24, 2021

“Illinois speedy trial rights ordered reinstated — but not until October,” Injustice Watch, June 30, 2021

“Court backlog leaves hundreds of people in Cook County Jail for more than a year,” Injustice Watch, April 28, 2021

“Jury trials in criminal cases resume in Cook County,” Chicago Sun-Times, March 22, 2021

Emails: Evans spokesperson Mary Wisniewski, June 30 & July 1, 2021

Press release, Circuit Court of Cook County, June 14, 2021

Press release, National Center for State Courts, Jan. 11, 2021

Press release, Circuit Court of Cook County, April 20, 2021

Press release, Circuit Court of Cook County, June 14, 2021

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