Editorial: Data can build understanding, help solve Chicago’s crime problem

Editorial: Data can build understanding, help solve Chicago’s crime problem

Violent crime in Chicago increased by 11.5% in 2023, but the city’s arrest rate dropped compared with 2022.

Crime is Chicago’s biggest problem now, but city leaders have become seemingly tolerant of crime. You get what you tolerate.

Officials cheer at headlines telling us shootings and homicides were down in 2023 compared with 2022, but we forget murders and shootings were still way up compared with where we were a decade ago or compared to other big cities. Again: Overall violent crime, such as robbery, battery and assault, rose from 2022 to 2023.

And what good is a headline if people here don’t feel safe?

A big part of the problem is we’re not arresting the people who commit crimes or processing them effectively, meaning offenders can do it again and again. Even though the number of violent crimes grew to its highest level in a decade last year, the arrest rate dropped year over year. This isn’t just a one-off: it’s part of a larger trend. There has been an 18% increase in violent crimes and a 33.7% decline in the number of arrests since 2013. This means the share of violent crimes resulting in an arrest has nearly halved, dropping from 19% in 2013, to nearly 11% in 2023.

Chicago has long been split into two realities: In some parts of the city, crime has always been a problem. In others, criminal acts were few and far between. In the past several years, crime has ramped up dramatically across the city, often in broad daylight, even in parts of the city that have always been relatively crime free.

So what’s going on?

A lot has happened in the world during the past several years that influenced these outcomes, including COVID lockdowns, school closures that exacerbated truancy problems in city schools and more. Legislation such as the SAFE-T Act made big changes in the way Illinois’ criminal justice system functions, most notably ending cash bail and imposing additional requirements on prosecutors seeking to detain defendants before trial. Ending cash bail is a good thing, so long as there’s a system in place that allows resources for the proper processing and risk assessment of people charged with committing crimes. The problem with cash bail is it keeps people behind bars based not on innocence or guilt, but on a person’s ability to pay. Changes to pretrial detention standards have proven more problematic because theft and battery are among the most prevalent crimes in the city, but under the SAFE-T Act a person arrested for either of these charges alone cannot be held before trial. Often that leads to people being arrested for a crime and committing multiple other crimes while awaiting trial, cycling in and out of the system. X, formerly Twitter, is lousy with examples, including one video of a young man arrested for stealing a car who was caught on video saying he’ll be out tomorrow.

These problems need to be addressed, in addition to ensuring prosecutors are willing to take a more serious attitude toward crime, because we’re seeing far too many stories about violence against the innocent. Young women are being assaulted on the L. Not too long ago, a young woman was brutally murdered not far from our offices in the Loop. Children continue to be shot, injured and killed, casualties of unchecked violence.

The police have an impossible job, caught in a system that would make anyone in their position think twice before acting given that no matter what they do, people continue to flow in and out of the system. Ultimately suspects end up back out and committing crimes again. Witnesses are afraid to give evidence for fear of retaliation against themselves and their loved ones, making it harder to facilitate arrests and charges.

What complicates all of this is when things get this bad, the public loses its ability to do nuance. We find ourselves in crisis mode, needing to stop things from getting worse. The reality is we don't want the pendulum to swing all the way back to the “tough on crime” mentality that prevailed during the Clinton era. But we also can't continue to tolerate a system that seems to be going out of its way to protect those guilty of crimes while doing too little to protect the innocent.

Sometimes a problem is acute and sometimes it's chronic. Chicago's crime problem is both, and it should be treated accordingly. The first order of business is clear, and that's restoring the concept of consequences. If people are allowed to commit crimes without fear of punishment, guess what? They commit more crimes. Another good idea? Make sure to properly staff the Chicago Police Department. Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson’s budget, which the City Council approved at the end of 2023, eliminated 833 street-cop vacancies, a move that runs counter to what the majority of Chicagoans want.

Again, that's not to say we support building a system that warehouses people and throws away the key. Each human life has inherent value and shouldn't be cast off and forgotten. That's true of people in the criminal justice system and the people affected by crimes. What we're saying is simple: It’s time to refocus on deterring criminal activity. Chicagoans want to feel safe again. Looking at crime data helps understand why they don’t right now.

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