Fitzgerald Threatens Gun Criminals | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Fitzgerald Threatens Gun Criminals

Murder in Chicago is an all too common occurrence. And for all the hand-wringing that goes on when people are shot and killed, very few people actually know what to do to prevent future gun violence. Federal prosecutors, including U.S. attorney Pat Fitzgerald, think they have part of the answer.

Related:
Asst. U.S. Attorney Jeff Cramer Explains Consequences of Getting Caught with a Gun Again
Ex-offender Salim Williams Shares His Story Living the Fast Life
Sheldon Smith Outlines Options After Prison

On a Thursday night, eight tables are set up in a huge square in the sanctuary of a tidy church on Chicago's South Side. Jeff Cramer leans back in his chair and kind of frowns as he tries to intimidate his audience.

CRAMER: You've got a bulls-eye on your back gentlemen. Don't kid yourselves.

Cramer is federal prosecutor and he's talking to 12 parolees who recently finished serving time for gun crimes. Many of the attendees meet Cramer's tough guy act with a tougher guy act, leaning back in their chairs and looking entirely uninterested. Cramer says he's trying to scare these guys who have been in and out of the state prisons system and aren't deterred by it anymore. So he warns them.

He says because of their records and their attendance at this forum, if they catch another gun case, they're going down because the case will be prosecuted federally. And if that happens they'll get 15 years for pleading out.

CRAMER: This is not 15 years you do half of it at Menard where you're gonna know a lot of people. This is 15 years. You're going to do 85 percent. And they're going to send you to some God-forsaken part of this country. They're going to send you to Yankton, South Dakota. No one's visiting you in Yankton, South Dakota. And that's on a plea. But you can go to trial.

Cramer tells the parolees that federal prosecutors have a 90 percent conviction rate and the sentences for gun crimes are somewhere around 30 years.

CRAMER: If you get picked up with a gun in the city of Chicago I will see the arrest. Do not go to the federal system. It's about choices and I wish you the best of luck.

In all, four law enforcement officials from different agencies give essentially the same message. But the tone of the evening shifts with the last two speakers. Salim Williams is in a wheelchair from a gunshot wound he sustained while dealing drugs. He sets himself up as an example of all the downsides to gang life and every ex-offender pays close attention as he speaks.

WILLIAMS: Man I got to use a 14 inch catheter for every four to six hours to piss Joe. I got to use an enema. I got to insert this Mother F***** into my rectum.
 
The other speaker is Sheldon Smith.

SMITH: I've done time in Centralia, Danville, Sheridan, East Moline.

Now Smith is with the Safer Foundation, an organization that helps ex-offenders get jobs and a GED.

SMITH: You say you want more? Let's do the damn thing. Roll up them pants, roll up your sleeves. It was easy to get that felony right? It's hard as hell to get rid of it right?

When the meeting finishes, the attendees stay away from the four white law enforcement officers, but they rush up to thank Williams and get a card from Smith.

Now, a month later, Smith says three of the 12 attendees from that night have been in touch with him and are going through training or are ready to get a job. Authorities would like more people to make use of these opportunities but that would present it's own problems.

FITZGERALD: The more forums we do and the more people we wave the stick at to say you better not be carrying a gun, the more carrots we need.

Pat Fitzgerald heads up the U.S. attorneys office in Chicago which runs Project Safe Neighborhoods. It's a national program but the parolee forums are a local twist. The forums are held in only a few of the highest crime areas of the city and they target gun offenders who are much more likely to kill or be killed.

Researchers from Yale, Columbia, and the University of Massachusetts have found that offenders who go to a forum are 30 percent less likely to return to prison compared to similarly situated offenders who didn't go to a forum.

FITZGERALD: The whole idea that you can reduce crime from meeting in an hour is just to me so powerful as long as we have enough job opportunities and GED opportunities for people at the other end. It's not going to be very successful if we go around and tell a whole bunch of people getting out of prison, you have a choice and then they make the right choice and then we say, 'Well actually you don't have a choice' because we don't have a job opportunity.

Fitzgerald says his time as a prosecutor has convinced him that law enforcement is not going to be able to prosecute it's way out of the gang and gun problems plaguing Chicago. He says employers need to step up and start hiring ex-offenders.

Fitzgerald is scheduled to argue that case before a luncheon crowd of civic and business leaders later today at the city club of Chicago.

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