Top officials vow new action to catch violent fugitives
Sen. Dick Durbin (right) meets with top Justice Department and Chicago-area law officials to discuss border-crossing fugitives on Thursday, Jan 12. (Antonio Perez/ Chicago Tribune / January 12, 2012)
The officials from the Justice Department and various northern Illinois agencies pledged to more closely coordinate their international fugitive apprehension programs, better manage their mounting caseloads and train local prosecutors and police in the often-complex and lengthy extradition process.
"There's a feeling that this is a growing problem, an expensive problem and a large challenge to our system of justice," said U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, who convened the meeting. "I think the response at the table was extremely positive at all levels."
Attending the working session with Durbin were U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole — the number two official in the Justice Department -- as well as U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, the Chicago heads of the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service, and Timothy Williams, the director of Interpol in Washington.
The local officials included Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, the state's attorneys from Cook, DuPage and Will counties, representatives from the Illinois Attorney General's Office, the Chicago Police Department and the Illinois State Police.
Durbin called together those officials in response to an investigative series by the Chicago Tribune that found dangerous criminals were able to cross the border and remain at large because of an astonishing lack of coordination among Justice Department officials, county prosecutors and local police; a failure by these agencies to keep track of their mounting caseloads; inexplicable years-long delays and outright errors.
Tribune reporters dug out new Justice Department data and used sealed warrants and thousands of pages of government records to identify more than 200 international fugitives from northern Illinois.
The reporters then traveled through Mexico, where more than half of the Chicago-area absconders fled, and searched for nine fugitives. They found 8 of them: five accused of homicides, 2 of sexually abusing children and one of shooting and wounding a man. Two agreed to on-camera interviews.
Following Thursday's closed door meeting, Durbin announced that Fitzgerald's office was planning three seminars to training Illinois law enforcement agencies on the extradition system.
Durbin also urged county criminal court judges to set higher bonds for violent criminals who presented flight risks — a weakness pointed out in the series.
And he endorsed a bill introduced by Illinois lawmakers that will make it possible to prosecute close family members for aiding or harboring a fugitive, another loophole highlighted by one article in the series.