Decline in Chicago federal criminal cases reflects nation

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Data from the U.S. Attorney's office in Chicago shows a sharp decline in federal criminal cases filed the past 10 years. (WLS)

Data from the U.S. Attorney's office in Chicago shows a sharp decline in federal criminal cases filed the past 10 years. But authorities and experts are explaining and defending the numbers.

In Chicago this year, homicides and shootings have soared but the number of federal criminal prosecutions has not. With 2016 nearly complete, figures from the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois show a decline of almost 30 percent in criminal cases brought over a 12-year period.

But the U.S. Attorney and some legal experts said there are reasons behind the numbers.

"This is not a factory where you can just turn it up a little bit faster," Jeffrey Cramer, former federal prosecutor, said.

Cramer was a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office 12 years ago, when almost 30 percent more federal criminal cases were filed than this year.

Patrick Fitzgerald was the United States attorney at the time.

Now the U.S. Attorney in Chicago is Zachary Fardon. In Fardon's rookie year of 2014, 474 criminal cases were filed. In Fitzgerald's first year, 2002, there were 863 filed-a difference of 45 percent.

Chicago isn't alone. U.S. Justice Department data shows that new federal cases have fallen nationally more than 25 percent the past five years.

And while the 2016 federal case files in Chicago will end up slightly better than last year, Fardon has said in speeches that the types of cases being charged by federal authorities is also changing with more resources are now being dedicated to major gang cases and gun prosecutions.

"We've got one shot at this thing and we have to make sure that we get it right assuming we find problems. Our goal is not quick fixes. It is sustainable, long term change-that's what we're about. And sustainable change requires time and care and enormous effort," Fardon said.

In 2014 that effort was dealt a setback according to Fardon when a federal budget "sequestration" resulted in a hiring freeze--that and attrition causing the number of staff lawyers to take a hit, just now starting to ramp up.

"So play it out for a second, you're down 20, 25 percent but then you're able to hire like the office was recently able to do here in Chicago. Well the first day you've got a new prosecutor the last thing you're going to do is throw him or her into a courtroom with some sophisticated fraud, or gun or drug case," Cramer said.

Fardon said federal gun prosecutions in Chicago are at the highest level in a decade. And that his office is "busier than ever" going after gangs and guns. He says they "seek impact, not volume and notes that one recent case in court took years to bring and enormous resources."

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