A city council vote on Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposed Victim’s Justice Ordinance — which would allow the city to sue suspected gang leaders — was delayed using parliamentary procedures during a city council meeting Feb. 23.
The Victims Justice Ordinance, which is modeled after the 1993 Illinois Streetgang Terroism Omnibus Prevention Act, allows the city to file civil complaints against street gang members, seeking to seize their assets and profits from alleged gang activity. Lightfoot said these assets include cars, houses and businesses.
The mayor’s proposal has been controversial since it was originally introduced in September 2021. Progressive city council members, including 49th Ward Ald. Maria Hadden who represents Rogers Park, have been outspoken about issues they see with the ordinance.
Hadden proposed the city instead look towards expansion of social services, which she says are more proven solutions to curbing violence.
“This ordinance will exacerbate existing due process issues with civil asset forfeiture, it will result in the targeting of community and family members of individuals who haven’t been convicted of criminal activity, and it is a policy that has proven to be woefully ineffective in reducing crime,” Hadden said in a Feb. 16 statement denouncing the ordinance.
Alderman Chris Taliaferro of the 29th Ward, who is the Chairman of the Public Safety Committee, pushed the proposed ordinance at least until the council’s next meeting March 23. This move signals that the mayor and her allies lacked the votes needed to pass the ordinance, Hadden said.
“There was pretty strong opposition, and there was not strong support and that was the unique position,” Hadden told The Phoenix. “So they didn’t have the 26 votes needed to pass it, but we didn’t necessarily have 26 votes to fail it either.”
Mayor Lightfoot insisted this wasn’t the case and she said in a Feb. 23 press conference following the council’s meeting she chose to delay the vote to continue to educate people since she says there has been misinformation about the ordinance.
Civil asset forfeiture — the center of the mayor’s plan — is a process by which police and prosecutors keep cash, cars and other valuables from people after seizing the property during a traffic stop, an arrest, or an investigation. A 2017 report by the Justice Department’s Inspector General found that 80% of people who’ve had their assets seized weren’t convicted of a crime.
Zhandarka Kurti, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Loyola, said a critical flaw in the mayor’s plan lies in an outdated understanding of the makeup and operations of gangs. She also brought up a 2018 lawsuit which alleged the Chicago Police Department’s (CPD) gang database is discriminatory and error-ridden.
“What leads someone to being in a gang database is too broad and wide ranging and the consequences are devastating,” Kurti said. “There is no oversight to how people are added and no way to remove them. According to the lawsuit, 95% of adults listed are Black and Latinx and more than 50% were added when they were 11 or 12 years old.”
Kurti said in recent years, gangs have been increasingly targeted as complex criminal enterprises by federal prosecutors and there has been no reducing effect on gang violence.
“With this ordinance, the city continues its commitment to abandoning poor and Black and Latinx communities and then uses them as a scapegoat when it sees fit to do so,” she said. “So-called gangs are a scapegoat for the deeper structural issues in Chicago that state officials have contributed to by their inactions and policies.”
Along with members of the city council, Cook County Public Defender Sharone R. Mitchell Jr. and the Illinois American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have been clear in their opposition to the ordinance, arguing the ordinance would actually worsen conditions in Chicago’s low-income neighborhoods.
In January, a group of more than 50 civil rights attorneys sent a letter to Lightfoot urging her to withdraw the ordinance on the grounds it would perpetuate racial disparities in law enforcement practices.
Their letter cited a Lucy Parsons Lab Chicago which found that between 2009 and 2015 CPD focused their civil asset forfeiture efforts on the South and West sides of the city, targeting minority communities.
During the Feb. 23 press conference the mayor rebuked what she said she felt were uninformed criticisms of the policy, saying those who feel the ordinance won’t make a difference should listen to people impacted by gang violence.
Violence and shootings have been increasing since 2019, according to city data. Homicides and shootings are both up more than 60% from where they were prior to the pandemic. Lightfoot said the ordinance is instrumental in the city’s ongoing fight against gang violence.
The mayor and her allies said seizing property in this manner could save the city money. Lightfoot argued in her statement introducing the ordinance it would deter street gangs from crime by disrupting “the financial lifelines that support this criminal activity and fuels their dominance in our city.”
Following initial criticism, Lightfoot renamed the proposal to emphasize the policy’s benefits for victims of violent crime and gang activity. The proposal included a “victims justice fund” which states “a minimum of 5-% of funds obtained by the city” would support victims of and witnesses to gang-related activity.
Hadden said this part of the mayor’s proposal makes sense, however she said there are questions about how much economic support could actually be distributed to victims because there aren’t significant amounts of money leftover after the costs the city would face carrying out the ordinance.
“Looking at the numbers the police department and law department gave us, with the average case the best case scenario brings in $5,000, but it’s going to cost us close to $7,000,” Hadden said. “So if you’re looking at this the way it was rebranded as the Victims Justice Ordinance, it’s kind of disingenuous because it’s not really going to be contributing funds.”
The Illinois ACLU alleges the ordinance is vague and casts too large a definition on who can be sued, for what crimes and what property can be seized. They say the term “street gang member” is broad enough to include parents, family, friends and caretakers of alleged criminals. They also say those who may be sued will be unable to afford legal representation.
The mayor insists the city will mainly target leaders of criminal organizations, however, and dismissed the notion that defendants would not be able to afford legal counsel.
“The people that we will target, they have plenty of money to pay an attorney,” she told reporters. “They have attorneys that they regularly go to in defense of themselves and their members.”
The Illinois ACLU released a statement in which they said they hoped this move could end the appropriation of time and energy to the mayor’s proposal. They proposed city council turn their focus to approaches they feel would actually improve public safety such as police reform and a focus on improving criminal investigations.
Hadden agreed it’s time to look elsewhere in the violence prevention effort. She said the best thing the city can do is invest more into social services, which she says are proven to better address these issues.
“We’ve put a lot of funds in violence prevention funds in direct service outreach and mental health care, economic development is huge,” she said. “I’ll say with programs like Invest South/West, there are some things that the mayor has done that put funds into those areas, we have to continue to double down on that, there’s more we can do still.”
Mayor Lightfoot remains steadfast on her aim to pass the ordinance through city hall and see it implemented city-wide. Although she said she could not provide specifics, she said during the Feb. 23 press conference amendments would be made to the ordinance in an attempt to satisfy members of the council and ensure its passage.
Hadden said she isn’t confident the mayor will address the concerns she and others have raised since they’ve had multiple briefings on the ordinance, but said she’s open to hearing out possible changes Lightfoot may make to the ordinance.
“Let’s see what she comes back with, I think it’s always good to have an open mind when people are trying to work on policy solutions,” she said.
The mayor said her office and allies will continue to advocate for the ordinance and the positive impacts they ascribe to it.
If Lightfoot does make changes to the ordinance it will have to go back to committee before it can go before the city council again. Hadden said in its current form she does not see enough support for the proposal to pass if it is brought up again next month.
“I’ll say that I think that what we saw happen with this ordinance is a really good example of the legislative process functioning at its best,” she said. “Where this was quickly introduced but because of the public engagement, because of organizing outside of council, we were able to slow it down so people really had time to consider. I count it as a victory for all of us with concerns about it that the mayor is having to reconsider this.”