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Chicago's Lori Lightfoot just made a shocking comment undermining due process

The Chicago mayor’s remarks show Democrats risk sliding back toward mass incarceration.
Image: Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot
After a teenager was shot and killed in Chicago's Millennium Park on May 14, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a 10 p.m. weekend curfew for minors.Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune/TNS via ZUMA file

In response to rising violent crime rates, Democratic politicians across the nation have been scrambling to look tough on crime. Now one such politician has gone as far as to attack the basic assumption of innocence in our criminal justice system in a way that would be shocking even for a Republican.

According to a report in The Chicago Tribune, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a Democrat, essentially argued on Monday that judges shouldn’t allow people charged with violent crimes out on bail because it can be assumed they're guilty.

Wait, what?

Here are her exact remarks from her news conference:

“We shouldn’t be locking up nonviolent individuals just because they can’t afford to pay bail. But, given the exacting standards that the state’s attorney has for charging a case, which is proof beyond a reasonable doubt, when those charges are brought, these people are guilty,” Lightfoot said, apparently referring to people charged with violent crimes.

Democratic politicians across the nation have been scrambling to look tough on crime.

“Of course they’re entitled to a presumption of innocence. Of course they’re entitled to their day in court. But residents in our community are also entitled to safety from dangerous people, so we need to keep pressing the criminal courts to lock up violent dangerous people and not put them out on bail or electronic monitoring back into the very same communities where brave souls are mustering the courage to come forward and say, ‘This is the person who is responsible.’”

The mayor also said allowing people who have been charged with violent crimes out on bond “undermines the legitimacy of the criminal courts.”

Lightfoot’s comments are a bit confusing, and certainly troubling. She says charged individuals are entitled to a presumption of innocence, and yet in the same breath deems them guilty and dangerous. What’s clear is that based on her proposal — refusing an entire category of defendants the possibility of release from jail — it seems she’s challenging the cornerstone of American jurisprudence and arguing that people charged with certain crimes are to be treated as guilty until proven innocent.

Lightfoot has received sharp criticism from civil liberties advocates and public defenders for her shocking rhetoric. The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois said in a statement to the Tribune that it was “sad to see a highly trained lawyer and former prosecutor so badly mangle the meaning of our Constitution.”

“A charge based solely on assertions of police has often proven unreliable in this city — as evidenced by the city’s history of paying large settlements for CPD’s role in wrongful convictions,” the statement continued, using the abbreviation for the Chicago Police Department.

The Cook County Public Defender office noted in its criticism of Lightfoot’s remarks that it has in the past year alone represented more than 11,000 people in cases that ended in dismissal or a finding of not guilty.

Chicagoans deserve better than a mayor whose statements suggest that we'll be fine doing away with pre-trial releases altogether and undermining due process.

Judges make individual assessments on what conditions they’ll allow pre-trial defendants out of jail, if at all, based on an evaluation of flight risk and the danger the defendants pose to the public. Lightfoot effectively said there’s no need for those specific evaluations.

But the mayor’s remarks were not a function of misunderstanding defendants’ civil liberties. It was a political gesture meant to signal that she thinks the criminal justice system needs to crack down more harshly on crime, which has surged in the city in recent years.

Her rhetoric is reminiscent of New York Mayor Eric Adams’ approach to getting tough on crime, in which he has advocated for rolling back bail reforms in his state that have made certain kinds of crimes ineligible for cash bail. Despite the fact that there is no evidence that links bail reform to an increase in the crime rate in New York, Adams sees giving judges more power and latitude to keep defendants locked up as a way to bring down the crime rate — or at least convince the public that he’s trying to.

Lightfoot’s remarks about presumption of guilt might reflect a similar kind of thinking. Illinois’ elimination of cash bail in 2023 is likely to intensify calls for more tough-on-crime policies in Chicago. She might be trying to get ahead of it. But no matter her motivation, Chicagoans deserve better than a mayor whose statements suggest that we'll be fine doing away with pre-trial releases altogether and undermining due process.