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Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans meets with representatives of retail groups to discuss facts and solutions about theft problem

Released On 04/04/2022

Representatives of retail and other merchant associations expressed surprise and satisfaction at the high conviction rate for those charged with retail theft/smash and grab crimes in Cook County, following a meeting last month with Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans.

At the meeting, retail representatives expressed fears that people were being arrested and then set free to rob again. Evans shared facts about retail theft and/or “smash and grab” incidents to help clear up misperceptions, so all stakeholders could work together to create solutions. A “smash and grab” case is a charge of retail theft which is also alleged to have occurred with an incident of criminal damage to property, looting, or mob action.

When cases go before a judge or jury, the conviction rate is high, Judge Evans said. Of the 13,495 retail theft/smash and grab cases that were fully prosecuted, defendants were convicted 99.8% of the time.  In 97.6% of all cases disposed with a guilty outcome, the defendant pleaded. Another 1.5% were found guilty in bench trials. People accused of these crimes were found not guilty in just one jury trial and 29 bench trials between 2017 and 2021.

Sentencing guidelines for retail theft range from less than a year for a Class A misdemeanor to up to five years for a Class 3 Felony for someone with a criminal history.

“It’s great to hear that the conviction rate was so high – that’s not what we perceived before we went in there,” said Maureen Martino, executive director of the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce, after the meeting.

Sam Toia, president and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association, said he was “definitely surprised at the high conviction rate” of people who are prosecuted.

Judge Evans said he understands the retailers’ fears about crime in their communities. “I’ll be talking to our judges about the things we discussed,” he said.

Judge Evans noted that, despite some high-profile incidents, both the number of retail theft charges and the percentage of total criminal charges that were retail thefts have gone down in recent years, according to a review of case filings. In 2017, there were 91,146 cases filed, only 10.2% of which had a top misdemeanor or felony charge of retail theft or “smash and grab.” In 2021, there were 52,120 cases filed, and just 5.7 % were retail theft/smash and grab cases.

Out of all cases in which retail theft was the top charge between 2017 and 2021, suspects were released at the police station on bail or on their own recognizance in 57.4% of cases.

Of all 36,987 retail theft cases disposed between 2017 and 2021, 63.5% did not proceed with prosecution. Of these, 18.3% or 6,764 were disposed as “nolle prosequi,” meaning they were not prosecuted. A higher percentage, 41.4% or 15,279 cases, were dismissed with leave to reinstate, while 3.6% or 1,348 were dismissed with a finding of no probable cause.

Judge Evans said it is important for witnesses to come to court if victims want cases to go forward. He noted that the Office of the Chief Judge is working with the Chicago Police Department to help ensure officers do not schedule time off when they are needed to appear for cases.

Toia said he appreciated the meeting with the chief judge and his staff about the concerns of the business community. “We don’t want repeat violent offenders getting to go back on the street hours after they’ve been arrested. We the business community want to make sure we’re working with the chief judge and the court system to make sure victims show up to be witnesses against perpetrators.”

On January 27, after working with the Criminal Division and the National Center for State Courts, Judge Evans announced new efforts to speed up resolution time, through implementation of a “differentiated case management” system. Current disposition times for felony retail theft cases average nine months – Judge Evans said he would like to get that down to six months or less.

Judge Evans emphasized in the meeting that all stakeholders must work together for justice, and avoid “finger pointing” over who is to blame for the crime rate, which has risen around the country.

“We don’t want to finger point either,” Toia agreed. “We just want to get everyone working together, everyone rowing the boat in the same direction. That will not happen if we’re pointing fingers at each other. It’s very important that we’re communicating and educating. We felt that the chief judge communicated very well and did some education.”

Kimberly Bares, president and CEO of The Magnificent Mile Association, said that she appreciated the data and the transparency. She also noted that some of the issues that cause her concern, such as the number of people getting probation rather than jail time, may need to be addressed through changes in state law.

“We all want the same thing, we all want safe neighborhoods, we all want the criminal system and democracy to work,” she said.

Chauncey Rice, manager of government relations for the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said merchants “particularly appreciate the Chief Judge’s willingness to review existing policies and practices to find a balanced and effective approach to deter crime across the City of Chicago and Cook County.”

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