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Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016 12:19 am

Tougher penalties for gun crimes

PHOTO BY ALAN SOLOMON/TNS
Gov. Rauner said last week that he has never spoken with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel or any legislators about a much-anticipated proposal to toughen penalties for gun crimes.

“I’ve not discussed that issue with the mayor myself,” he said, adding, “Frankly, I’m talking with legislators all the time. They have not brought that issue up with me.”

Rauner was referring to legislation currently being drafted by state Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, and state Rep. Mike Zalewski, D-Riverside, to increase penalties for people who are busted with guns but aren’t legally authorized to possess them because of, for instance, prior felony convictions.

Mayor Emanuel and his various police chiefs have demanded such a law for years because far too many violent criminals are getting out of prison too quickly and are then committing more crimes. But a push to pass a bill stalled out a couple of years ago after members of the Legislative Black Caucus demanded that the General Assembly first roll back some other legal punishments.

Every year, legislators jack up penalties for crimes, often because their local news outlets make a big deal about a local criminal act. And every year more people who could be living productive lives are instead trapped even longer in the criminal justice system. The pendulum had simply moved too far in one direction and African-American legislators wanted to push it back the other way. Not to mention that the original enhanced penalty bill would have cost the state millions of dollars it didn’t have.

Rauner came into office promising to reduce the state’s prison population by 25 percent, so his goal dovetailed nicely with Black Caucus demands for reduced punishments on nonviolent offenses.

But with gun violence spiking way up in Chicago, why isn’t Rauner working with legislators and the mayor to find a solution?

Raoul and Zalewski both confirmed that they hadn’t spoken with Rauner about their proposal.

“Technically he is right,” Sen. Raoul said about the governor’s statement. But, Raoul said, “I insisted that the Chicago Police Department keep [the governor’s] public safety director apprised and they/we have. We have not drafted the legislation yet, so there have not been multiple meetings, but his director of public safety did receive a briefing on the concept a couple of months ago.”

Other legislators said privately that there was no need to bring Rauner directly into the talks yet because no legislative language has emerged. They’re still working out the finer points with stakeholders, including the National Rifle Association, which is supportive in general, but reportedly has some issues with some minor details, like, for instance, making sure medical marijuana patients are exempted from any enhanced gun penalties.

Rep. Zalewski said that, while he hadn’t yet spoken directly to Rauner, he believes passing such a law “makes sense” in the context of the governor’s advocacy for criminal justice reforms.

Rauner, Rep. Zalewski said, will need to give legislators political cover for passing the bills necessary to meet his goal of lowering the prison population by a quarter. There is a real fear by some legislators of being tagged as “soft on crime,” so upping penalties on bad guys could balance out votes for reducing penalties for others.

And still others said the governor’s claims that he talks with legislators “all the time” don’t quite provide the complete picture. “He ‘calls’ occasionally,” said one legislator. “But then he just talks. There’s no back and forth. He just talks. And then he says ‘Look forward to talking again’ and hangs up. That’s not talking. That’s monologuing.”

Anyway, last week Rauner held a Chicago press conference with some of the most liberal Democratic members of the House and Senate to sign a large pile of criminal justice reform bills into law.

The signing ceremony was unusual because Gov. Rauner has typically approved those types of bills on a late Friday afternoon without even so much as a press release. In the past, it seemed as if Rauner didn’t want to needlessly alienate his conservative Republican base by too publicly attaching himself to that sort of legislation. But with a general election coming up, Rauner appears to be attaching himself to issues that independents and Democrats prefer.

Hopefully soon, the governor can help craft a final agreement to address the other side of this criminal justice coin. Yes, it will cost more money, and it won’t help him keep his promise to reduce the prison population, but the hard reality is some people just need to be locked behind bars for longer than they are now.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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