Friday, December 13, 2013

Chicago Vocabulary Lesson: "Overcharging" and "Undercharging"

22-year-old Chicago murder victim Rekia Boyd
The State's Attorney for the Chicago area finally got around to bringing a charge against a police officer who shot and killed a citizen. Why, I wondered, didn't Anita Alvarez charge him with murder?

Then I remembered my Chicago vocabulary lesson.

In Chicago, the administration of justice is thought to depend -- at least according to the State's Attorney and CPD -- on two things called "overcharging" and "undercharging."

"Overcharging" means that anyone charged with a crime is charged with serious offenses far beyond what the situation warrants and then --

Oh wait: did I say "anyone"? I should have said "anyone with dark skin."


So ... "overcharging" means that anyone -- especially anyone with dark skin -- who is charged with a crime is charged with serious offenses far beyond what the situation warrants and then is thrown into a dungeon called Cook County Jail until they agree to a plea. "Overcharging" is greatly helped by "mandatory minimum" sentencing guidelines that mean that if people don't agree to a plea, they face crushing prison time.

Don't take it from me - take it from Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle and bestselling author Michelle Alexander. Toni Preckwinkle says, "There are people in our jails, waiting to have their cases heard, who have served more time than convicted criminals sentenced to prison." (See Toni Preckwinkle: Cook County courts need outside reformer )

And Alexander says the system is so broken that if, by some stroke of magic, people were able to contest charges against them instead of accepting a plea, the "justice" system would have a conniption. (See "Go to Trial: Crash the Justice System" )


More data at
 And then there's what happens when police are charged with a crime.

(Admittedly, this section may not have the same statistical significance as the section on "overcharging" because the number of police in Chicago charged with crimes is ... well ... I know of one case, anyway .... )

"For the first time in more than 15 years, a Chicago police officer was criminally charged Monday in a fatal, off-duty shooting . . . ." was the lede in the Chicago Tribune account of the November 25, 2013, charging of Dante Servin in the off-duty shooting that killed 22-year-old Rekia Boyd with a bullet through the back of her head. (See Prosecutors: Detective was 'reckless' in fatal off-duty shooting)

What is startling is that the State's Attorney couldn't bring herself to charge Dante Servin with murder. They charged Servin with "involuntary manslaughter" -- which is States'-Attorney-speak for "this whole thing was just an unfortunate accident."

The facts show that Dante Servin chose to equip himself with his personal weapon - an unregistered Glock pistol ... and, after having made a call to 911 to complain about noisy people near his house, he chose to exit his house at 1 a.m. ... and he chose to confront some young people he saw near his house  ... and, after he drove his car a short distance from where he exchanged words with the young people, he chose to take out his weapon ... and he chose to fire his weapon at them.

And he killed someone.

The murder was certainly a "mistake" but it is asinine to suggest that there was no "intent."

Any prosecutor worth his or her salt would set out to make the case that Dante Servin set out to threaten violence against other citizens and that he followed through on that threat. So what does that make it? First degree murder? Second degree murder?

Maybe the place to start is: how would Dante Servin be charged if he were getting the standard Chicago "overcharging" treatment, instead of getting a pass?

Related posts

A campaign exists to bring about a democratically-elected Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) in Chicago. The campaign would involve the people in electing the watchers of the police, and put the ultimate control of (and responsibility for) the police in the hands of the citizens of Chicago.

(See Does a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) need to be part of a "new plan of Chicago"? )

In the city where I live, "normal" or "right" or "acceptable" has been given a brutal construction by the power structure:

Police encounter black man on street
Police shoot black man
Black man dies
(Business as usual in Chicago.)

 (See We need to get the police off the streets of Chicago. QED.)

 Cook County Jail is the perfect example of the nationwide injustice that Michelle Alexander described in her groundbreaking book, The New Jim Crow: mass incarceration, focused principally one people of color, in which "crimes" (often related to drug possession or other low-level offenses) become the mechanism for entrapping people in a cycle of incarceration that is brutalizing and often begins a downward spiral of lifetime discrimination.

(See Free Them All )

All the cameras and microphones and reporters were out in force that day -- and their appearance suggested to me that it does make a difference to take a stand for justice. And maybe the fact that some of us thought this was important enough to come out, hold signs, chant, and march, helped back up that message.

(See Chicago Justice: Connecting the Dots )