Chicago superintendent pushes tougher sentences for gun crimes
The proposal would increase the sentencing guidelines for judges deciding punishment for repeat gun felons
By Monique Garcia and Jeremy Gorner
CHICAGO — State senators and Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson on Thursday will try to jump-start long-stalled legislation to impose stiffer sentences for those convicted of gun crimes.
The proposal would increase the sentencing guidelines for judges deciding punishment for repeat gun felons. Instead of a range of three to 14 years, judges would hand out sentences in the range of seven to 14 years, according to the legislation. If a judge wanted to depart from that guideline, he or she would have to explain why.
It's a different approach at the Capitol, where previous efforts have fizzled. In 2013, for example, lawmakers failed in a high-profile attempt to raise the mandatory minimum sentence for first-time illegal gun possession offenders from one year to three years. Opponents, led by the legislature's Black Caucus, raised concerns about increased incarceration they said would hit minorities hardest, suggesting rehabilitation and jobs programs were needed instead.
Since then, there's been a surge in Chicago street violence that's now in its second year. President Donald Trump has publicly pressured the city to act. And three children recently were killed in the span of a few days.
Johnson, who for months has been calling for lawmakers to take action, is scheduled to testify in favor of the bill at a Senate hearing Thursday. Last year, the city had its highest number of homicides in 20 years, and a Johnson spokesman called that "a reprehensible mark on the city that we never want to re-live."
"And he's going to ask the legislature for the tools so that cities like Chicago can hold repeat offenders accountable," Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said. "And it's not just a Chicago issue. This isn't an attack against legal gun owners. This is an attack against repeat convicted felons that use guns to destroy communities."
To address the Black Caucus' concerns, sponsors say the new measure would give judges the discretion to impose a lesser sentence depending on various factors such as the age and mental capacity of an offender, whether the offender was coerced or cooperated with law enforcement in prosecuting another felon.
Proponents say giving judges such an option is designed to target gang members who take advantage of gun laws with deadly consequences, while leaving flexibility for those who aren't violent criminals but made a poor decision.
"Let's be honest, the bad guys out there shooting at other gang members, they know what they can get away with and what they can't get away with," said Sen. Tony Munoz, a former Chicago police officer who is sponsoring the legislation. "This is not for a first-time person who decided to carry a gun today because 'someone threatened to kill me and my mom when I came home from shopping.' This is totally different."
The measure also excludes truth-in-sentencing requirements that violent offenders serve most of their sentence before they can be released, a decision co-sponsoring Sen. Kwame Raoul said is designed to "leave room" for offenders to shave time off through rehabilitation programs in prison.
"Given that I've historically opposed other versions of this, I think it was important that the superintendent and I work together and we came to an agreement on a more narrow approach," said Raoul, D-Chicago.
The legislation also incorporates numerous ideas that came about during meetings of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's criminal justice task force, charged with finding ways to reduce the prison population.
That includes an expansion of programs that makes it easier for first-time, nonviolent offenders to scrub their record after completing probation.
Other changes include relaxing the size of "drug free" zones from 1,000 to 500 feet, and requiring prosecutors to prove a connection between a drug crime and the protected area, such as a school, before that can be factored into toughening a sentence. In addition, the measure would remove public housing from being labeled as a protected area in an effort to reduce the impact that law has on poor and minority communities.
While those changes may help win support of some Republicans who back the governor's efforts to cut down on those incarcerated in state prisons, Raoul said the move would allow for the release of nonviolent offenders to make way for those who pose a threat to public safety, such as felons who commit gun crimes.
As for whether tougher penalties will help deter crime and lessen the violence plaguing city streets, Raoul said it's worth a try to get criminals off the street and hopefully put them on a better path.
"Whether or not there will be an absolutely strong correlation between presumed enhanced sentences and general deterrence from gun violence, I don't know that," Raoul said. "But what I can say is that to the extent you get any amount of guns off the street, even if it saves one or two lives, it's a policy that's well worth it."
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