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As Jussie Smollett Case Unfolds, A Look At Hate Crimes In Chicago

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Jussie Smollett

Actor and singer Jussie Smollett attends the “Empire” FYC Event in Los Angeles in May 2016.

Richard Shotwell

Jussie Smollett, one of the stars of the TV show Empire, turned himself in to Chicago police Thursday morning and now faces a felony charge of disorderly conduct for allegedly filing a false report of a hate crime. 

This turn of events comes three weeks after Smollett reported two men had made a racist and homophobic attack against him in downtown Chicago, allegedly shouting slurs and tying a rope around his neck like a noose.

The weeks-long investigation of the Smollett case put hate crimes front and center in national news, and left some Chicagoans wondering how such a brutal attack could happen here. While the latest data show a steady increase of reported hate crimes nationwide, there’s been a recent decline in both Chicago and Illinois.

Chicago attorney Julie Justicz joins Morning Shift for a closer at the number of reported hate crimes in the area.

How should we interpret the latest data on hate crimes in Chicago and Illinois?

Julie Justicz: We need to be very careful before ascribing too much meaning to them. One thing we know very well about hate crime statistics is that they dramatically under report actual events. And in Illinois and in Chicago in particular, there may be many reasons why a victim of a hate crime is reluctant to report it, is frightened to go forward. And even if they do go forward, there’s a big question of whether those incidents ever make it to the FBI database. 

On barriers to reporting a hate crime

Justicz: Those vary from individuals’ lack of knowledge about what a hate crime is, lack of information about where and how to best report, and then, once the case is actually reported, what is done with it. The prosecutor has to make a decision to pursue a hate crime, and oftentimes there is difficulty proving intent in these crimes and so rather than bringing forward a case where they’re not sure about conviction, the prosecutor will often choose to proceed with a lesser offense, such as a simple battery. 

Jenn White: Is part of the issue a limitation in the way the law is written around whether or not someone can be convicted of a hate crime?

Justicz: I think we benefit from having a really good law in Illinois. … What’s difficult, though, with all these cases is to prove the underlying intent. So what we tend to see happening more and more is that prosecutors will veer away from a case, unless there’s really clear — and we’re talking beyond a reasonable doubt — evidence for a criminal case of the motivation. 

False reports attract more attention than actual hate crimes

White: Do we know how common false reports of a hate crime actually are?

Justicz: I don’t have numbers on that. They are very low. … What we hope, if anything good is to come from this Jussie Smollett incident, it would be that we turn our focus to those who are victims of hate crimes in our city, in our state, and across the country due to an increasingly difficult political environment, increasingly divisive rhetoric. And we need to lend our support to those folks and make sure they’re heard and make sure police respond to them with the same time, resources and attention that they are giving now to Jussie Smollett’s case. 

White: Are you at all concerned that the opposite might happen, however, that if in fact his initial report was a hoax, that the public will be more likely to question or even dismiss reports of hate crimes? 

Justicz: I do worry about that and I think anybody who works with victims of hate crimes or advocates in this area would express concern about those very issues. And I think to the extent that what happened to Jussie Smollett does prove or play out to have been a hoax, he’s done a real disservice to the clients that we do represent who have been victims of hate crime. 

If you are a victim or a witness of a hate crime, call the hotline for the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights at 312-202-3663. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Click play to hear the full conversation.

GUEST: Julie Justicz, director of program advancement and the Hate Crime Project at the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights

LEARN MORE: Hate Crime Project (Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights) 

Hate-crime numbers in Chicago fell in 2017, and experts aren’t sure why (Chicago Sun-Times 5/6/18)

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