Battleground Chi-raq: Taming Chicago’s Rising Murder Rate

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The murder rate in Chicago passed the 500 mark on Labor Day weekend 2016 and continues. It is a city where the epidemic of violence is obvious and tragedies keep mounting with no solution on the horizon.

Among those killed in the last several weeks was Nykea Aldridge, a cousin of Chicago Bulls star Dwyane Wade, who was pushing a stroller home from registering her children at school when a stray bullet hit her in the head.

"Chicago certainly has a history of violence, but what's been happening in recent years is chilling," says Oliver Harris, a former criminal defense attorney in Chicago and one-time city council member in Evanston, Ill., a suburb of Chicago.

More recently, Harris put his knowledge of the city's crime and corruption to use in his novel "JoJo" which uses Chicago as its backdrop.

Chicago's murder rate peaked in the early to mid-1990s when in some years there were more than 900 murders. The murder rate then began to drop, but the decline stalled in the last 10 years and this year it's on the rise again.

The city is on pace to top 600 murders for the first time since 2003, the Washington Post recently reported.

"There are a lot of problems in Chicago, gang violence being a major one," Harris says. "It's time for the local, state and federal governments to all work together to try to solve this problem."

Harris says there are several ways Chicago could address the crisis, including:

• Copy what worked in other cities. In the 1990s, Richmond, Va., was concerned with a rising rate of firearm violence. Out of that concern authorities developed Project Exile in 1997. That plan changed the way convicted felons found in possession of a firearm were prosecuted. The prosecution was shifted from state to federal court, where there was a mandatory minimum sentence of four years.

Within a couple of years, Richmond saw a dramatic drop in its murder rate, the New York Times reported at the time. Harris says Chicago should consider its own version of Project Exile. "If you get sent up the river and are off the streets for four years, that can be a lot of people you don't shoot if you are a hardened criminal," Harris says.

• Use RICO to break up violent gangs.  Most of the murders on the southside of Chicago are the result of gang violence, i.e., turf wars, and violence over the drug trade. There are believed to be approximately 125 Street Gangs in Chicago with up to 20,000 white, black, and Hispanic members, most being armed and dangerous. In the 1970s a federal act known as RICO – for Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations – was instituted.

With this law, various federal law enforcement agencies took down a host of criminal organizations in the 1970s and 1980s, including the Chicago Mob, the various New York Mobs, the "Teflon Don," John Gotti, and finally, the notorious Chicago Street Gang, the Blackstone Rangers, a/k/a The Black P. Stone Nation, a/k/a El Rukn, who presided over a reign of terror in the city for 20 years.

Federal RICO remains on the books, and can be used against every street gang in Chicago, but requires the cooperation of the president and the Department of Justice, which has not been forthcoming. The State of Illinois also has a RICO act enlarging the federal version, but its use has been sporadic against gangs, it has been the subject of a recall petition, and it sunsets in 2017.

"Use of the legal devices already available could go a long way toward curtailing Chicago's gun violence," Harris says. "Authorities need to start making use of them because the situation appears to only be getting worse."

About Oliver Harris

Oliver Harris, author of the legal thriller "JoJo", has spent 45 years as a trial lawyer, prosecutor and criminal defense attorney. He has worked in both Chicago and in Palm Beach County, Florida. His undergraduate degree is from the University of Chicago and his law degree is from the Indiana University School of Law.

Image courtesy of CNN and used with permission.

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