Hundreds more Black Chicagoans are pleading guilty to gun-possession charges. Here’s one possible reason why.

A man sifts through a binder of documents laid out on the hood of his car in a parking lot, while looking at the camera.

Olivia Obineme for Injustice Watch

Doryion Booker pauses for a portrait as he sifts through a binder of documents related to his court case. Booker was arrested in 2020 on gun-possession charges and was indicted by a Cook County grand jury.

This story is the first in a series looking at gun-possession arrests and prosecutions in Cook County, published in partnership with Block Club Chicago and The Circuit.

In March 2020, Doryion Booker was putting in extra hours driving for Uber to save up for his wife’s birthday present. The day before her birthday, a Chicago police officer pulled him over on the West Side for not having proper lighting over his license plate.

As Booker reached into his wallet for his driver’s license, the officer saw his Firearm Owners Identification card and asked if he was carrying a gun, Booker said. He was, after two recent incidents had left him “paranoid,” he said.

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Instead of enjoying home-cooked lobster and a play for his wife’s birthday as he had planned, Booker spent a day-and-a-half in custody after he was arrested on suspicion of carrying his gun without a concealed carry license.

About a month later, he received a letter from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office saying that he had been indicted. A grand jury, at least 16 civilians convened by prosecutors to review felony cases, had decided to charge him with aggravated unlawful use of a weapon.

“It was a bit of a shock to the system. I had to go read it twice because it felt surreal,” said the 47-year-old Navy veteran.

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This story is part of The Circuit, a joint project of the nonprofit news organizations Better Government Association and Injustice Watch, in partnership with the civic tech consulting firm DataMade.

There are two ways that felony cases move through the court system: Grand juries, which meet in secret for a month straight, hear hundreds of cases, and rarely decide not to indict, and preliminary hearings, where prosecutors present their case to a judge and defense attorneys have the opportunity to argue that the arrest should be thrown out.

Before 2014, about 25% of cases in Cook County where illegal gun possession was the top charge went through grand juries. From 2016 to 2018, prosecutors brought more than 95% of those cases through grand juries, according to an analysis of decades of Cook County court data conducted by The Circuit.  (The Circuit has requested, but not yet received, court data from 2019 to present from the Office of the Chief Judge.)

Sarah Staudt, a former defense attorney who now works on criminal justice policy at Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts, said grand juries make it much harder for defendants to weigh the risks of taking a case to trial if they are indicted than preliminary hearings because the prosecutors and police can “tightly control” the evidence in the case for much longer under the grand jury process.

“When they go into plea bargaining, they have more power,” she said. “They have the knowledge and you don’t. It’s as simple as that.”

Cook County Felony Cases. On the left, a door with preliminary hearing and two people walking into a courthuse. On the right, a closed door with a grand jury meeting behind it.

Illustration by Verónica Martinez

There are two ways felony cases move through the court system: Grand juries, which meet in secret and rarely decide not to indict, and preliminary hearings, where prosecutors present their case to a judge and defense attorneys can raise issues with the arrest. Since 2015, Cook County prosecutors have brought nearly all gun-possession cases through grand juries.

The effect has been clear: As Chicago police officers make hundreds more gun-possession arrests each year, those cases are less likely to go to trial and more likely to end in a guilty plea. In 2017, approximately 75% of defendants in gun cases pleaded guilty — the highest rate since 2010, according to our analysis.

The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office has aggressively prosecuted gun possession cases, even as officials have said publicly that nonviolent gun arrests brought as many as 1,400 people with no prior felony convictions into the criminal justice system in 2020 alone. The office’s chief data officer said last year that “we might be creating a lot of people that will forever be marked as a felon.” Most of those people are young Black men who may not have been able to afford the paperwork or meet the requirements to legally carry a gun in Illinois.

A spokesperson for Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said Illinois law gives prosecutors discretion to use preliminary hearings or grand juries to prosecute felonies and said the office “makes determinations based on the facts, evidence and the law, and uses the tools available within the criminal justice system to administer justice.”

But a spokesperson for Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell Jr. said grand juries act as “a virtual rubber stamp for the prosecution.”

Black Chicago residents were most affected by the shift to grand juries. Black people made up 80% of those charged with the nonviolent gun offenses we examined, which included unlawful use of a weapon, aggravated unlawful use of a weapon, armed habitual criminal, and FOID card violations. Many of these arrests, like Booker’s, started with minor traffic stops on the West and South sides of Chicago, according to an analysis by Block Club Chicago and Injustice Watch.

Chart showing the rise in the number of gun possession cases and the percentage brought via grand jury indictment since 2015.

David Stovall, a criminology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the concentration of gun arrests in Black neighborhoods and shift in prosecution strategy reflects the “carceral logic” of police and prosecutors that “if Black people possess weapons, it is only to do crime.”

Booker, who at one time was a licensed security guard, said he had started carrying his gun again a few days before his arrest, after he was confronted twice while delivering food for Uber Eats. The first time, he said a group of people approached his car, claiming they had ordered an Uber; they ran off when the actual customer shined a light on them. The next day, he said a man answered the door for an order he thought had been made by a woman. When Booker tried to verify the name on the order, the man pushed him over, threatened to kill him, and snatched the order from him, he said.

“When I was in the military, I didn’t get shot at,” Booker said. “There’s no way on God’s green earth I’m going to get shot at in my own neighborhood. So I started carrying my gun.”

After his arrest, he thought he’d have a chance to explain himself or at least have his attorney make the case that he was a responsible gun owner. But then he got the letter about the grand jury indictment.

“You know how they present it on TV, where your lawyer gets a chance to go in there or something and say ‘show us some evidence.’ That’s not what happened,” he said.

An overnight shift to grand juries

The shift to Cook County prosecutors bringing almost all gun cases through grand juries happened practically overnight in August 2015. The month before, 85% of gun cases were brought by preliminary hearing. The month after, more than 95% of those cases were brought via grand jury.

It’s not clear why the change happened. Anita Alvarez, the Cook County state’s attorney at the time, declined requests for comment. A spokesperson for Foxx did not respond to questions about whether there was a policy change, and a Freedom of Information Act request for any related office policies or announcements from that time turned up nothing. The spokesperson also did not make Foxx available for an interview.

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The Circuit

Explore nearly two decades of Cook County court data

The Circuit, our project with the Better Government Association and DataMade, examines Cook County criminal court data from over 3 million cases between 2000 and 2018. Now you can view the charges in our data broken down by race, gender, and ethnicity.

The shift coincided with a spike in shootings in Chicago and a dramatic increase in the number of gun-possession arrests in Cook County. Between 2014 and 2019, arrests on nonviolent gun possession charges jumped 85%, according to an analysis by researchers at Loyola University Chicago. The researchers found that the majority of the people arrested did not have a previous felony conviction.

Foxx’s administration has tried to have it both ways when talking about their record on gun prosecutions. At a webinar for reporters about gun crimes that the state’s attorney’s office conducted last summer, Chief Data Officer Matthew Saniie questioned whether arrests on nonviolent gun charges are successful at taking the people responsible for violent crimes off the streets.

“It’s very unlikely that a lot of these individuals who are getting arrested are involved in actual gun violence,” Saniie said while presenting a slide deck showing a sharp rise in gun-possession arrests for people with no prior felony conviction since 2016.

But in the same presentation, Saniie touted the fact that prosecutors have accepted more felony gun arrests from Chicago police and that the office’s conviction rate for those charges has increased.

One reason the conviction rate has increased is that prosecutors are dropping fewer gun cases at preliminary hearings, according to the analysis of circuit court data.

Between 2000 and 2014, prosecutors threw out about one out of every 10 gun possession cases at preliminary hearings, according to The Circuit data. From 2016 to 2019, they dismissed fewer than 5% of gun cases.

The result is that gun-possession cases are more likely to end in convictions — usually because the defendant pleads guilty — than they were before the shift to grand juries.

Saniie argued that the cases are getting stronger as the state’s attorney’s office has pushed police to present more evidence before they approve felony arrests.

But Staudt said the shift from preliminary hearings to grand juries could be making it more difficult for defense attorneys to assess the evidence against their client and advise them to take their case to trial.

“A system where defendants have more information earlier in the process is a system where bad cases are more likely to get dismissed and are less likely to end in a plea deal,” she said.

‘I don’t want you guys to be a ham sandwich’

A bald Black man with a black polo shirt and blue sweatshirt looks into the camera.

Olivia Obineme for Injustice Watch.

Doryion Booker at South Shore Cultural Center, Monday, May 23, 2022. Booker was surprised when he got a letter in the mail saying he had been indicted by a grand jury on felony gun-possession charges. “You know how they present it on TV, where your lawyer gets a chance to go in there or something and say ‘show us some evidence.’ That’s not what happened,” he said.

The shift to grand jury indictments for gun cases has not gone unnoticed by Gary Carr, a retired 30-year veteran of the Willow Springs Police Department in southwestern Cook County. Carr, an ordained minister through the Universal Life Church and self-described “constitutionalist,” now teaches state-mandated classes to people looking to obtain or renew their concealed carry licenses.

At a recent class, in a makeshift classroom in a strip mall in Midlothian, Carr greeted the dozen students, many coming from the surrounding middle-class suburbs south of Chicago. There was a Black couple seated in the front row who bickered like empty nesters, a fit middle-aged white man decked out in his favorite college’s apparel, a Black veteran who runs a local Veterans of Foreign Wars post, and an older Black woman in a red jumpsuit.

Carr warned them of the consequences of failing to follow the complex set of laws governing gun possession in Illinois by referencing an old legal adage that a grand jury would indict a ham sandwich, which speaks to the ease with which prosecutors can advance cases through these proceedings.

“I don’t want you guys to be a ham sandwich,” Carr told his class. “That’s why I do this.”

But data suggests that the people in Carr’s class — which costs $99 for 16 hours of instruction over two days — are less likely to become the ham sandwich than young Black men on the South and West sides of Chicago. Black men under 25 years old are by far the most likely to be arrested on gun possession charges, according to the Loyola study.

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The outside of the Cook County Jail

Fewer people in Cook County are being charged with crimes. Why are Black people making up a larger share of defendants?

We broke down the data on specific charges and asked experts to explain why racial disparities are increasing in Cook County criminal court.

In part, that may be because getting and maintaining the proper paperwork to carry a gun legally in Illinois takes money and time that many people living in the neighborhoods suffering from the highest rates of violent crime often cannot afford. There’s a $150 application fee for the concealed carry license. Then there are fees for fingerprints, the gun range and ammunition. People with a felony conviction or certain misdemeanor convictions are also ineligible to legally carry a gun in Illinois — a barrier to many people in the city’s most heavily policed communities.

Booker said he stopped renewing his concealed carry license because of the cost. Eventually, he saw no need to carry his firearm outside his home since he was no longer working as a security guard. The gun was for home defense and target shooting, he said. But after those two confrontations, he decided to start carrying his gun again.

Once he was arrested, the costs piled up. He had to pay a $440 bond to get out of jail. In July 2020, shortly after he was indicted, Uber found the arrest on his record during a background check and fired him, he said. He struggled to find other work and soon ran out of money to pay his lawyer. As the case dragged on due in part to the court’s Covid-19 shutdown, a plea deal seemed like the only option, he said.

“It became a whole game of ‘we’re waiting to see this, we’re waiting to see that,’” Booker said. “And, ‘just take the deal.’”

Booker took the deal and was sentenced to two years’ probation in May 2021. He had to pay $864 in court fees, and he cannot possess a gun, change addresses, or leave the state without permission from the court. He also must submit to random drug testing, according to the sentencing documents. He’s now branded a convicted felon, which makes finding a job even more difficult.

Since his arrest, Booker avoids driving late at night on the South and West sides. He said he still fears becoming a victim of gun violence and also of an unnecessary interaction in this overpoliced area.

He said when he received his probation sentence he was warned to avoid any contact with the police. He worries that almost anything could be turned into a probation violation, which could mean serving out the rest of his sentence in jail, he said.

“The state is on a tear to prove they’re tough on crime,” he said. “I don’t want to find out what that could look like.”

Pascal Sabino from Block Club Chicago contributed to this report.

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