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Harsher penalties for repeat gun offenders passes but deal not done yet

By J. Coyden Palmer, Chicago Crusader

A much talked about enhanced penalty for gun offenders that Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been wanting, passed in the Illinois House, but is being stalled by the Black Caucus who say the bill is incomplete. Concerned that tougher penalties for gun possession would only put more Black men in prison for longer periods of time and not deter crime, the Black Caucus wants more crime prevention initiatives and funding in the bill.

It is all playing out in Springfield this week as lawmakers are down to the wire to try to pass a budget for the first time in two years and get the gun legislation done.

“We would like a bill that provides revenue for violence prevention programs, educational opportunities and jobs programs,” said State Rep. Thaddeus Jones (D-Calumet City), who filed a motion to reconsider the vote, which he supported. “We also want gun violence to be declared a public health crisis.”

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Rep. LaShawn Ford

Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-Chicago) said there needs to be further negotiation on the bill. Several other members of the Black Caucus however took a harder stance. New state Rep. Sonya Harper is skeptical. Harper, who grew up in Englewood, said she has seen no evidence that incarcerating more people will stop the violence.

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson has said if the law passes it would cut gun crime in Chicago by half. He said that is because most murders with a hand gun are committed by people who are not supposed to have a gun to begin with. Harper is not buying that argument. “That is the biggest lie I’ve ever heard in Springfield,” Harper said.

The Chicago Urban League also is not supporting the bill for the same reason as Harper. They said the bill will only put more Black people in crowded prisons and do not believe it will make the public any safer. “This bill, were it to become law, would have no lasting impact on gun violence in Chicago, because it does not address the root causes that underlie violence: gun availability, poverty, trauma and the disinvestments in neighborhoods, schools and services that disadvantage families and communities,” said Urban League CEO Shari Runner.

Four years ago, Black lawmakers in Springfield successfully stopped a similar bill. That time Black Caucus leader Ken Duncan said increased incarceration would not help keep the community safe. It was interpreted by some as a rift between Black lawmakers and Chicago mayor, Rham Emanuel. Since that time Emanuel’s relationship with lawmakers has not gotten any better, after the Laquan McDonald video was released and the Mayor’s constant cuts of funding to public schools that serve predominantly Black students.

Another Black legislator, Christian Mitchell (D-Chicago) said Johnson would be better served in training detectives to solve more crimes to deter criminals. Mitchell quoted the police department’s own statistics, which show over half of the murders in Chicago go unsolved. “If violent criminals know they have a 50/50 chance of not being caught, they are willing to take their chances,” Mitchell said.

Others say tougher sentencing on everything from drugs to alcohol has never been proven to work in the United States. Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago) believes tougher sentencing only succeeds in making politicians look good. He said if you look back over the past 40 years in the criminal justice system you will not see anywhere in history where the policy has worked. “We have seen proof that it simply isn’t true,” Guzzardi said.

Even though the bill still has to go through the Senate and is not yet done in the House, Mayor Emanuel released a statement congratulating the bill’s chief’s sponsors. He said something different must be done to combat gun violence. “This bill would finally hold repeat gun offenders responsible for their crimes, and it is an important step to improving public safety in Chicago and Illinois, along with expanding alternatives to incarceration for first-time non-violent offenders, investing in economic development and strengthening social services,” the statement said.

The legislation would increase the sentencing guidelines for judges handing down sentences for repeat gun offenders. Currently the law calls for a range of three to 14 years in prison. The new law would be seven to 14 years; if a judge wants to issue a lesser sentence, he or she would have to explain why.

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