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Lawmakers Propose Harsher Gun Sentences, Tiptoe Around “Mandatory Minimums”

Co-sponsors of a proposed bill hope it will deter gun violence, but critics fear its unintended consequences.

Chicago police have long argued that harsher gun sentences could reduce violence, but not everyone agrees.   Photo: Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

Amidst concerns about Chicago’s increasing shooting rates—in 2016 Chicago had the eighth-highest murder rate among major U.S. cities—Illinois lawmakers are proposing new legislation that targets people who repeatedly violate gun possession laws.

According to bill co-sponsor and Democratic state Rep. Mike Zalewski of Riverside, the proposal would hit people with prior gun misdemeanors with a "higher range on the sentencing scale.” Co-sponsored by Rep. Elgie Sims and Sen. Kwame Raoul (both Democrats from Chicago), the bill would increase the sentencing range from its current three-year minimum to a range of seven to 14 years, with the hope of reducing gun violence rates.

The bill comes a few years after a similar proposal in 2013—backed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel—that failed to pass after members of the Legislative Black Caucus blocked it on the grounds that the proposal would favor incarceration over rehabilitation and would disproportionately affect black communities.

The difference between this year’s proposal and 2013? Instead of imposing a “mandatory” minimum sentence, it proposes a “presumptive” minimum, which means judges can choose a sentence under seven years if there is “compelling justification” (such as mental health and potential for rehabilitation) to do so, according to the bill’s language. (The mandatory minimum would remain three years.)

In other words: “If there’s a kid on the South Side of Chicago with a 3.7 GPA, who’s involved in sports, who’s not in a gang, and for some reason he’s caught with a firearm—we don’t want him to get trapped in the system,” says LaVonte Stewart, a Raoul staffer.

Yet criminal justice experts still worry that the punitive measures will do more harm than good. Stephanie Kollmann, policy director at the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, points out that Illinois already has some of the most stringent gun possession laws in the country, having “raised sentencing for gun possession laws six times since 2000.”

Kollmann argues that the current proposal, despite its allowance for lower sentences, “changes the nature of a sentencing hearing.” She explains, “It means that if you are looking at a presumed sentence of seven to 14 years, you are incredibly motivated to plead guilty to an offense that carries a lower sentence, even if you would otherwise defeat the charge,” an effect that could worsen the unfair mass incarceration of communities of color which lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been trying to reverse.

Still, Chicago police top brass have long cheered this type of change. Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson told the Tribune last fall, “Until repeat gun offenders recognize we’re serious about holding them accountable, we’re going to continue to see this gun violence.” The Chicago Police Department declined to comment on this proposal since it has not yet been finalized.

But there’s little evidence that harsher punishment will deter people from breaking gun laws, according to a 2013 report that Kollmann co-authored with Dominique Nong. Among other reasons, the report points out that most people illegally carrying guns in Chicago are young people whose “decision-making won’t take into account longer sentences attached at the end of a trial.” Instead, people tend to carry guns because they feel unsafe, says Kollmann, and many of those who are most likely to become gun violence victims cannot legally own guns.

A less punitive approach to tackling gun violence, as Sharone Mitchell of the Illinois Justice Project wrote in the Sun-Times last month, would be to “increase community safety and to prevent [people] from feeling forced to rely on an illegal gun for protection.”

The Children and Family Justice Center—along with 47 other groups including the ACLU’s Illinois chapter— released a report last November that advanced a public health-oriented solution toward combating gun violence, namely by increasing community programs and mental health services, improving community relations with police, and decreasing the availability of illegal guns.

Rather than put forth harsher punishments, Kollmann suggests learning some lessons from the war on drugs: “The same type of analysis is demanded here: Why are people carrying guns?”

The bill, which is still being negotiated with the Criminal Justice Reform Commission (a group created by the governor, tasked with reducing Illinois’s prison population by 25 percent) as well as with law enforcement officials, also includes reforms that would help prisoners reduce their sentences based on time served and good behavior, according to Raoul.

Stewart says he is “aware of the notorious effect that mandatory minimums can have,” emphasizing the lenience that the proposal allows for judges to reduce sentences. “It’s about incapacitating repeat gun offenders—people who pose a serious risk to their communities.”

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