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Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013 02:01 am

More jail time for gun crime?

 

Illinois lawmakers are considering an increase in minimum prison time for carrying a weapon under certain circumstances, but opponents say that won’t reduce crime. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is pushing the bill, which may be voted on when lawmakers return to Springfield in January.

Rep. Mike Zalewski, D-Chicago, sponsors Senate Bill 1342, which would increase mandatory minimum prison time for anyone convicted of aggravated unlawful use of a weapon. That crime involves making, buying or carrying a prohibited weapon – usually a firearm – along with an “aggravating factor” like being involved in the commission of a crime.

Mayor Emanuel wants the bill passed in response to gang violence in that city. A spokesman for the mayor’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Zalewski says the prospect of increased prison time will deter gang members in Chicago from carrying weapons, though he admits mandatory minimum sentences aren’t effective for all crimes.

“For certain low-level drug offenses, they’re probably not (a deterrent),” Zalewski said. “For violent crimes like gun crimes, they might be.”

Currently, a person who already has a felony conviction and is then convicted of aggravated unlawful use of a weapon receives between three and seven years in prison. Zalewski’s bill would increase that to between four and 10 years.

The John Howard Association, which monitors state prisons, opposes the bill, saying it will needlessly increase the already high prison population without decreasing crime. JHA points to a study showing that an increase in minimum sentences doesn’t decrease crime, but an increased likelihood of conviction if caught does.

“As the vast majority of people who go to prison eventually return to our communities, we need to answer the following question as we consider creating longer criminal sentences for any offense, including illegal gun possession,” JHA said. “Is this the most effective use of our limited resources to get us the results that we all want, which are safer communities?”

Like many controversial issues, mandatory minimum sentences have become bogged down in research. Zalewski counters JHA’s claim with a study by the University of Chicago Crime Lab that analyzed gun crimes in Chicago and found most resulted from fights.

“These data suggest a pattern to much of the gun violence that occurs across the state of Illinois: An argument in some public place turns deadly because someone – often an impulsive young person – has a gun ready at hand,” the study said. “Strategies (like increased sentences) capable of deterring illegal gun carrying could help reduce the lethality of violent crime.”

The bill comes at a time when advocates of prison reform criticize the state’s large and expensive prison population. The Illinois Department of Corrections estimates the bill would add 3,680 extra inmates to the current population of nearly 49,000, with additional operating costs of $702 million and construction costs of $263 million over 10 years. IDOC’s estimates have been criticized as being inflated for political reasons, but even the nonpartisan Illinois Sentencing and Policy Advisory Council (SPAC) says the bill would have cost the state an additional $393 million if it had been in effect for 2010 through 2012.

SPAC said incarceration does decrease crime while inmates are behind bars, but imprisoning more people leaves less money for rehabilitating inmates.

“The crime reduction effect of incarceration may therefore be offset by increased recidivism from reduced access to programming if programming budgets are cut to fund more prison beds,” SPAC said in a cost estimate released in February.

Zalewski counters that the problems with state government funding go far beyond the prison population.

“If the Department of Corrections wants to have a real discussion about what we can do to improve the state’s finances, I’m happy to have that discussion,” he said. “But that problem doesn’t start with this bill. We haven’t funded state government appropriately for several years now, so my bill isn’t the problem there.”

Previously, the National Rifle Association and the Illinois State Rifle Association opposed the bill on the basis that it punished first-time offenders, which they believed would result in people who otherwise obey the law being imprisoned for carrying a gun in the wrong place.

“It’s just going to sweep up everyone for an innocent mistake,” said Richard Pearson, ISRA executive director. “I’m not going to take some person who went to work and left the gun in their car, and put them in jail for three years.”

In light of that opposition, Zalewski revised the bill to exclude first-time offenders, leading the NRA to support the bill.

Pearson said he still opposes the bill because he doesn’t believe it will make any difference in crime.

“You might as well build a fence around the whole state and call it a prison,” he said. “Every study has shown it doesn’t work, and it’s expensive. We’re already broke; we can’t keep putting people in jail.”

Zalewski says the bill is really about protecting public safety, whether in Chicago or elsewhere.

“Felons with guns, gang members with guns – they’re going to face a tougher consequence if they choose to ignore our laws,” Zalewski said.

Rep. Brandon Phelps, R-Harrisburg, originally opposed the bill for the same reason as the NRA and ISRA. Phelps now supports the bill, thanks to Zalewski’s revision.

Everybody says they want to take the bad people off the streets,” he said. “Well, this does it.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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