The idea that we’re all presumed innocent is foundational to our legal system. Mayor Lori Lightfoot recently turned this principle on its head by suggesting that when the Cook County’s state’s attorney charges people with violent crimes, “These people are guilty.” She went on to say people should be stripped of their pretrial freedom and jailed simply because charges were brought. Indeed, according to the mayor, letting people go “undermines the legitimacy of the criminal courts.”
The reality is that it is the mayor who undermines the legitimacy of the system when she discards the presumption of innocence upon which our system of justice is based. As lawyers and law professors, we know that the criminal legal system was not designed to determine guilt at the time of charging. Contrary to Lightfoot’s claim that the prosecutor’s “exacting standards” mean that no innocent person will be charged, we know that the idea that everyone who is charged is guilty is demonstrably false.
In Cook County, 27% of felony cases are ultimately dismissed without charges — about 40,000 people between 2015 and 2020, according to the Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts. When gun possession cases go to trial, a majority of the people who have been charged by the state’s attorney office are acquitted, the Chicago Appleseed Center has reported.
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