Citing a lack of manpower, the Cook County State's Attorney's office plans to stop prosecuting certain traffic offenses, a top county official said.
Under a policy expected to take effect later this year, the state's attorney's office will not prosecute people accused of driving on licenses that have been suspended or revoked for financial reasons — such as failure to pay child support, tolls or parking tickets.
Instead, individual cities and towns will have the option to prosecute those violations.
"We are in a triage mode, and we can't continue to do what we were doing 10 years ago with 30 percent less resources," Eric Sussman, the first assistant state's attorney, told the Tribune on Wednesday.
The move comes as State's Attorney Kim Foxx, elected in November, has pushed in other ways to change how her office handles low-level, nonviolent cases. In December, she dramatically raised the bar for felony charges related to shoplifting. And this week, she said that prosecutors could recommend that judges to release non-violent defendants charged with low-level crimes without any cash bail, pending the resolution of their cases.
In the new policy on traffic cases, Cook County prosecutors will continue to handle cases in which a driver's license was invalidated because of more serious crimes, such as DUI, fleeing a police officer and reckless homicide.
In addition, the new traffic policy raises the bar for felony charges against people who cause serious car crashes while their licenses were revoked for financial reasons.
Under current law, a driver's license-related misdemeanor charge can be upgraded to a felony if the driver causes a serious car crash and has one prior conviction for driving on an invalidated license.
Under the new policy, the state's attorney's office would upgrade those charges only if the defendant has five or more convictions for driving on a revoked or suspended license, if the license was taken away for money-related reasons.
The shift represents a reshuffling of increasingly scarce resources, Sussman said, noting that he number of assistant state's attorneys in the county has plunged in the past 10 years.
That means each prosecutor's caseload far exceeds what experts suggest, he said, citing a recommendation that assistant state's attorneys handling misdemeanors should have about 400 cases apiece.
In Cook County, that number is closer to 5,700, Sussman said.
Even prosecutors handling more serious crimes are stretched thin, Sussman said. Cook County assistant state's attorneys prosecuting homicides have about 25 cases at a time, he said — outstripping their peers in Manhattan, who handle about five apiece, and San Francisco, where each prosecutor has about 13 homicide cases.
"We're overwhelmed, and so what we have tried to do (is) look to areas where we can essentially reallocate our resources," Sussman said.
There are currently two courtrooms at the Daley Center devoted entirely to hearing the types of driver's license cases that state's attorneys will soon decline to prosecute, Sussman said. The new policy is expected to free up those prosecutors.
Representatives of the state's attorney are meeting with municipalities and law enforcement agencies to explain the change.
"So far at least, it makes it easier for law enforcement to understand we're not doing this because we disagree with the law or have a philosophical problem with the way the law is set up," Sussman said. "I think that a lot of this came as news to a lot of law enforcement agencies that we are as resource-constrained."
Individual cities and towns will have the power to prosecute the traffic offenses that the state's attorney's office is no longer handling, Sussman said.
"Some may decide to do it, some may decide it's not worth their time or effort," he said.
Relative to the overall jail population, there are few people in Cook County Jail whose main charge involves driving on a suspended or revoked license, according to Cara Smith, Chief Policy Officer for the Sheriff's Office.
As of Monday, there were 61 pre-trial detainees who were locked up mainly for those charges, Smith said. That's a fraction of the nearly 7,300 people who were in jail that day awaiting trial, she said.