Durbin proposes 'Bringing Fugitives to Justice Act'

Laws and Legislation

Illinois U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin today announced a host of measures aimed at capturing the growing numbers of criminal suspects who find haven across America's borders after they are charged with violent felonies in the United States.

In the long term, Durbin said he has spoken withMexico'sambassador about revisiting the extradition treaty between the two countries, which is more than 30 years old and omits serious crimes such as reckless homicide.

But he also spotlighted a series of immediate initiatives that include federal legislation designed to strengthen the Justice Department's efforts to apprehend border-crossing fugitives.

Durbin said the reform measures were inspired by the Tribune's ongoing "Fugitives from justice" investigation, which examined more than 200 international fugitive cases from the Chicago area and thousands more nationwide. The series identified chronic breakdowns that enabled suspects to flee trial for murder, rape and other felony charges by crossing a U.S. border.

Violent criminals were able to leave the country and remain at large because of an astonishing lack of coordination among U.S. Justice Department officials, county prosecutors and local police; a failure by these agencies to keep track of their cases; and inexplicable, years-long delays, the Tribune found.

Durbin said his proposed "Bringing Fugitives to Justice Act," which he plans to introduce today, would designate roughly $1 million to $3 million per year in forfeited appearance and bail bonds from federal criminal cases to a new fund that will enhance efforts to apprehend international fugitives.

The fund, which would not create any new federal spending, will benefit the U.S. Marshals Service, U.S. Attorneys' Offices and the Justice Department's Office of International Affairs, Durbin said.

Federal law currently requires that all forfeited appearance bonds, bail bonds and collateral in federal criminal cases be deposited into a specially designated Crime Victims Fund, but that fund cannot be used to help bring fugitives to justice.

The fund has a $6.1 billion balance, Durbin said, and only a small fraction of incoming money will be diverted to boost fugitive apprehension efforts. The amount will be large enough to "help bring justice for victims of fugitive crimes without unduly sacrificing other (victims' fund) programs or needs," he said.

He added that he hopes state and local jurisdictions will follow with similar measures.

Durbin also announced that the Justice Department has clarified its chain of command and designated the U.S. Marshals Service as the primary point of contact for Illinois police and prosecutors pursuing a border-crossing fugitive. In the past, local law enforcement officials have expressed confusion about whether they should turn to the marshals or the FBI -- two agencies with overlapping missions that often failed to coordinate their fugitive apprehension efforts.

Durbin said the clarification "will help local agencies share information more promptly when a fugitive case arises."

Following up on an earlier reform initiative, the Justice Department tomorrow begins training for Illinois law enforcement on procedures in fugitive investigations and cases. DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin will personally be participating along with two of his top chiefs.

Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez is sending a dozen criminal prosecutors to the sessions. "In the past we did not have a lot of people trained" in the complex paperwork needed to request an arrest warrant from a foreign government, Alvarez said. "It's better for all of us if we have more than one person who can do this."

Alvarez said she also has introduced a series of measures to better manage the growing stream of international fugitive cases, noting that fugitive prosecutions can grow more difficult as they drift for years with little attention.

"We're looking at how we can flag these cases and stay on top of them, (and) meet regularly with the feds on these cases to make sure they're always on someone's radar," she said.

Durbin met with Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan on Feb. 29 to discuss revisiting the U.S.- Mexico extradition treaty to address certain barriers to extradition.

At that meeting, Durbin urged the ambassador to make sure several cases highlighted by the Tribune were being pursued to the best of Mexico's ability. Durbin specifically cited five cases in which Chicago-area fugitives remain at large in Mexico, including four charged with murder and one with raping a child.

dyjackson@tribune.com and gmarx@tribune.com

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