Politicians look for solution to Chicago gun violence with sentencing
Legislators are facing pressure to lengthen sentences on repeat criminals who return to the streets and contribute to violence after serving only a portion of their prison terms
By Ivan Moreno
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — The refrain is heard almost as often as the fatal gunshots: The way to reduce Chicago's gun violence is tougher prison sentences for repeat gun offenders, keeping them off the streets and decreasing the city's mounting death toll.
That idea, pushed by the mayor, police superintendent and others, shifts pressure from patrol officers of the city's West and South sides to the Capitol, where legislators will consider how to balance law and order with finding alternatives to imprisoning young blacks and other minorities.
In that building, in the same Senate seat where Barack Obama launched his political career and focused on racial profiling issues, Democrat Kwame Raoul plans to propose legislation next month to impose longer sentences for defendants who previously committed a gun-related crime.
It's a measure that has Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson's backing, especially with the city topping 700 homicides a year after seeing 468. The state's past attempts to strengthen such penalties have been turned down, met by opponents who worry it'd further incarceration rates in the predominantly black neighborhoods hardest hit by violence and doesn't address the root cause of readily available illegal guns. The opponents have called for more comprehensive solutions that go beyond law enforcement.
Raoul and the legislative black caucus have said they don't want to increase mandatory minimums, which have drawn criticism for putting nonviolent drug offenders behind bars for decades — something even Obama is trying to undo in his final days through commutations and other actions.
Instead, Raoul says, he'll propose directing judges to use the higher end of the sentencing scale when someone has a prior gun-related conviction. Judges would keep their discretion in sentencing, but Raoul's bill may require them to explain their rationale.
As is, someone with a previous felony weapons conviction faces 3 to 14 years; Raoul's measure might have judges consider more than 10 years. Currently, someone with a 3-year sentence can be freed after serving half their term with good behavior.
"The question is ... whether (repeat offenders) are incapacitated long enough to create a breather for some neighborhoods that are just ravaged by gun violence, and long enough to create a deterrence," Raoul said.
But such an effort could turn into a "war on guns" that would resemble the war on drugs of the 1970s and 1980s, according to Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli, whose staff represents many of the accused. It didn't lead to a drop in drug usage, but to the "demonization" of mostly young African-American and Latino men, she said.
"Increasing prison terms while failing to address the causes of gun violence will serve only to, once again, demonize and incarcerate another generation of mostly young African-American and Latino men," Campanelli wrote in a September op-ed column in the Chicago Tribune.
The issue of repeat offenders again came under scrutiny in August when 32-year-old Nykea Aldridge, cousin of NBA star Dwyane Wade, was gunned down while pushing her baby in a stroller. She wasn't the intended target.
The men charged were two brothers who'd been released on parole — one two weeks before the shooting, the other in February. Despite a combined 26-year prison sentence for five separate felony convictions, they served only 11 between the two of them, Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez said.
"They're not afraid of the laws, they're not deterred by the laws," said Alvarez, who has pushed for stricter sentences.
Johnson, who has stood before the media several times this year decrying repeat offenders who were allegedly involved in some of the city's homicides, believes the "cycle of violence" will continue until people are put in jail longer. He often points to New York as a model, where having a loaded handgun illegally carries a minimum sentence of 3 1/2 years, regardless of whether someone has a prior record.
Yet, there's not enough evidence to show how effective stricter sentencing guidelines can be, said Roseanna Ander, the executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, which researches criminal justice matters. She suggests it may be more worthwhile to ensure sentence lengths are applied consistently, rather than different outcomes depending on the judge.
And a tough, zero-tolerance approach could be a tough sell in Illinois, where in 2013, lawmakers considered requiring three-year prison sentences for felons or gang members caught carrying a loaded weapon in public. The measure failed amid criticism from black legislators who worried it would lead to imprisonment for more African-Americans. The National Rifle Association also opposed the bill, arguing it could ensnare law-abiding gun owners.
Democratic Rep. La Shawn Ford, a member of the black caucus who voted against the 2013 bill, is skeptical that Raoul's bill is needed, saying there are sufficient laws to punish repeat offenders. He said harsher sentences will impact poor defendants who can't afford attorneys, and he worries Raoul's bill effectively sets new mandatory minimums — even if the measure is not written that way — because judges will feel pressured to impose tougher sentences to avoid backlash.
"Because now the eyes are all on the judge," he said.