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Mayor Lori Lightfoot

Mayor Lori Lightfoot presides over a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall in the Loop, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2023. She has promised to fix problems at the police department’s criminal registry office.

Ashlee Rezin

Mayor Lori Lightfoot pledges action following WBEZ’s investigation into criminal registries

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is promising a fix after a WBEZ investigation found the Chicago Police Department repeatedly turned away people who were trying to register at a police facility as required by law. The failure leaves people convicted of some gun, sex and violence crimes subject to arrest for failure to register. Advocates for survivors of sexual assault expressed concern that the overburdened office is indicative of a department that isn’t prioritizing their safety concerns.

Lightfoot said she had been unaware of the problems due to staffing shortages but said she would be taking it up with Police Superintendent David Brown to ensure “we’re doing what we need to do to make sure that they have the ability to register.” Chicago Police said they were “in the process of increasing efficiencies at the Criminal Registration Unit,” but the mayor and her Police Department refused to give details on how they would attack the problem.

Lightfoot’s challengers have condemned her and promised to fix issues related to staffing and the location of the registry office. But neither the mayor, nor her challengers, answered questions about larger issues related to the efficacy of registries, which some advocates say amounts to “paper pushing” that distracts the city from more effective ways to protect victims.

Mayoral candidates slam Lightfoot and pledge action

Among the mayoral candidates slamming Lightfoot for poor management is Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson.

“This is a threat to public safety, immoral and encourages recidivism. We can and should hire unarmed civilians to work the registries, leaving our short-staffed police force to focus on our communities,” Johnson said.

Mayoral challengers U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García and State Rep. Kam Buckner also called for more civilian staff to tackle administrative tasks, like registries.

“This is just another public safety issue that Mayor Lightfoot has failed to prioritize,” García said.

In addition to poor staffing, WBEZ’s investigation found problems with the location of the registry office. In 2021 it was located at the relatively central police headquarters at 35th and Michigan. Since then, it’s been moved to an office at 91st and Cottage Grove, a location that creates another hurdle for people trying to follow registry laws and may live across town. Buckner said the office should have never been moved and if elected he would open multiple offices to limit long lines and expand the registration office hours.

One concern about the current location of the registry office is that people must wait in a line outside. That was a safety concern for many, especially people on the gun offense registry, who said they were not allowed to carry weapons to protect themselves and had to cross gang lines to register. A former police commander who ran the unit called it a “drive-by waiting to happen.

Mayoral candidate Willie Wilson said that was a major problem. “We have to be concerned about their safety, as well as the one inside that is doing the job to take the register,” Wilson said.

Challengers Ald. Sophia King, 4th Ward, former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, and Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th Ward, did not respond to questions about how they would address the staffing and location issues related to the registry.

Possible legislative changes

The registry for gun offenses is mandated by city law, but other registries for sex offenses and murder and violence against youth are mandated by state law. The Chicago 400 Alliance, a group led by homeless people on the registries, is advocating for changes to state laws to shrink the registries.

“People on registries and the CPD are struggling to follow these laws. What needs to be considered, and was not considered when these laws were passed, is that even when the system is working, it is not going toward community safety. Paperwork is not police work,” said Laurie Jo Reynolds, the coordinator of Chicago 400. “No matter what you think police should be doing, this isn’t it.”

Some victim advocates are part of the Chicago 400 alliance and support shrinking the registries so government resources can be focused on violence prevention and solving crime.

A study from the University of Chicago in 2011 found that sex offense registries do not increase public safety. But Reynolds said historically legislators were afraid to vote against registries because of possible political opponents attacking them for being soft on crime. Reynolds is more hopeful about the current legislative environment. She said she believes there are legislators who think, “We should support reentry, not sabotage it.”

The Chicago 400 Alliance hopes to convince legislators to change laws that require homeless people to register weekly, instead of yearly or quarterly like people who have a fixed address. According to data from the city, nearly one-third of the registrations since 2017 were weekly sign-ups, taking a considerable chunk of police resources.

State Reps. Kelly Cassidy and Camille Lilly proposed legislation in 2021 that would have removed the weekly requirement, but the bill failed to gain any traction. State Rep. Will Guzzardi said he is currently working with his colleagues to make it so state laws apply equally to people without homes.

“I think that holding unhoused people to a standard of registration that is much more strict than other people is unfair. It’s a trap that sets up people to fail,” Guzzardi said.

None of the mayoral candidates answered questions about whether they would support such changes to state legislation or if they would make changes to the city legislation mandating gun offense registries.

Shannon Heffernan covers criminal justice for WBEZ. Follow @shannon_h

Matt Kiefer contributed reporting to this story.

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