Gun shy: Lighter sentences in Cook County fuel lock ‘em up debate

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Cook County judges aren’t throwing the book at people convicted of gun crimes, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis has found.

One year in prison is the minimum sentence in Illinois for illegal possession of a gun. The maximum is three.

In Chicago, most people convicted of illegal gun possession are getting the minimum, one year, the Sun-Times analysis found.

For the more serious charge of being a felon in possession of a gun, the minimum sentence is two years in prison. The maximum is 10 years.

In Chicago, felons illegally possessing a gun typically get four years, the Sun-Times found — toward the low end of the state sentencing guidelines.

And those are the sentences judges hand out, not the actual prison time. Most people convicted of these gun crimes serve less than half of their prison terms because of “good time” that inmates can get credit for under state law, in addition to credit for time held in the Cook County Jail while awaiting trial.

New York, by comparison, has a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 3 1/2 years for simple gun possession.

Prison time for gun crimes has become an increasingly politicized issue in Chicago, which remains in the national spotlight for gun violence, particularly murder. Even as the number of shooting deaths has fallen in Chicago in recent years, the city’s murder rate is still far higher than in New York or Los Angeles.

Guns confiscated by Chicago Police. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Guns confiscated by Chicago Police. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

To gauge how Cook County judges treat illegal gun possession, the Sun-Times examined 100 randomly selected cases involving a charge of aggravated unlawful use of a weapon, or UUW. That’s the legal term for simple gun possession. The newspaper analyzed another 100 cases involving felons charged with gun possession.

Only Chicago Police cases in which gun possession was the most serious charge were evaluated. The analysis looked at charges brought in 2012 because the last legislative changes regarding sentences for gun possession occurred before 2012. More than 90 percent of the cases reviewed have reached their conclusion in court.

Among the findings:

• The median prison sentence given for aggravated unlawful use of a weapon was one year.

• The median sentence for the more serious charge of aggravated UUW by a felon was four years in prison.

• Those charged with simple gun possession had an average of four prior arrests.

• Those charged with gun possession by a felon had an average of 10 prior arrests.

• About a third of those charged with simple gun possession and about half charged with being a felon in possession of a gun in 2012 were rearrested for another crime by the end of 2013.

Political hot potato

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and police Supt. Garry McCarthy have argued that stiffer minimum sentences for gun possession are needed to help keep violent criminals off the streets.

Emanuel pushed hard last year for the Illinois General Assembly to boost the minimum sentences for gun possession and to require anyone convicted to serve at least 85 percent of the sentence.

But the legislation, sponsored by state Rep. Michael Zalewski, D-Riverside, failed in the face of opposition from African-American legislators and the National Rifle Association.

The legislators argued that the stiffer sentences being sought would unfairly target African-Americans.

The NRA worried that normally law-abiding first offenders — for instance, a grandmother living in a dangerous neighborhood who got a gun for protection — would get caught in the same net as gang members.

There also was opposition from the John Howard Association, a prison system watchdog group that favors hiring more cops as a better way to fight gun violence and illegal gun possession.

Now running for re-election, Emanuel is no longer making a hard sell for stiffer gun sentences. That mantle has been picked up by Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, who has taken the lead in pushing for a tougher stance on gun possession in the next legislative session.

But, in a bow to the power of the NRA, Alvarez won’t seek to boost sentences for simple gun possession.

“The NRA opposition ostensibly should evaporate because we addressed their concerns by taking that off the table,” said Dan Kirk, Alvarez’s first assistant Cook County state’s attorney.

Alvarez supports raising the minimum sentence for felons in possession of guns, though, to three years in prison, up from the current two years. She also wants to require them to serve 85 percent of their sentences.

In addition, Alvarez wants to raise the minimum sentence for gang members caught with guns to four years — up from three years — with the same 85 percent “truth-in-sentencing” requirement.

Kirk said those changes would save lives.

He pointed to the case of Derrick “Little Billy” Allmon, who’s charged with murder in the Aug. 20 shooting death of 9-year-old Antonio Smith on the South Side.

According to prosecutors, Allmon, 19, and other members of the Sircon City Gangster Disciples were driving around looking to shoot members of rival gangs that day. They say Allmon was riding in a Buick trolling the area around Ashland and 71st Street, jumped out and shot Antonio six times, then threw his gun in a sewer and ran.

People gathered for the funeral of Antonio Smith, a 9-year-old boy who was shot at least four times in the 1200 block of east 71st street in Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood. | Alex Wroblewski / Sun-Times

People gathered for the funeral of Antonio Smith, a 9-year-old boy who was shot at least four times in the 1200 block of east 71st street in Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood. | Alex Wroblewski / Sun-Times

Prosecutors say Allmon told friends he “just hit a shorty,” then went to a friend’s house, tried to get rid of any gunshot residue and changed his shirt before returning home.

He was previously convicted of aggravated use of a weapon by a gang member. He was arrested in 2012, pleaded guilty on March 13, 2013 and was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison. He was paroled on Aug. 1 this year — less than a month before Antonio Smith was killed.

“Under our proposal, if it passes, the next Derrick Allmon would serve 930 days, as opposed to 547,” Kirk said. “The 9-year-old would still be alive.”

Fabio Valentini, chief of criminal prosecutions for Alvarez, said people can debate whether stiffer minimum sentences deter criminals from carrying guns. But there’s no question, Valentini said, that stiffer sentences would keep criminals from committing crimes while locked up.

The University of Chicago Crime Lab has looked at people sentenced to probation for gun possession in Cook County and found they are far more likely to kill someone than other felons are within a year of being released from prison. The researchers reached similar conclusions when they looked at gun cases in New York and New Orleans.

Kirk said he thinks stiffer sentences would get some of those people to think twice about carrying guns in the future.

After the 2009 passage of the “Valadez law” that targets gangs and guns, wiretaps captured gang members “warning each other to be careful about getting caught because they’re cracking down on that,” Kirk said.

Deterrence and discretion

John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association, argues against stiffer sentences, saying a better solution is having more cops.

“If you increase the certainty of apprehension, you increase deterrence,” Maki said.

John Maki is the executive director of the John Howard Association. | Kevin Tanaka/For Sun-Times Media

John Maki is the executive director of the John Howard Association. | Kevin Tanaka/For Sun-Times Media

He said the Sun-Times findings show Cook County judges already are giving significant sentences to felons caught with guns — double the minimum two-year prison term.

“This largely undercuts the argument you hear coming from the Emanuel folks that judges are afraid to use prison on these gun offenders,” Maki said. “These guys are getting a lot of prison time.”

If lawmakers do increase mandatory minimum sentences for gun possession, Maki wants them to still allow judges to impose a sentence below the minimum and put on record their reasons.

He also suggested narrowly tailoring who should be subjected to any tougher minimum sentence.

“If you are a nonviolent offender caught with a gun, that’s less of a big deal that a violent offender caught with a gun,” Maki said.

“Mandatory minimums treat the least culpable and most culpable the same way.”

The Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council studied tougher gun laws enacted between 2006 and 2012 and found the number of gun-possession charges in that period was virtually unchanged. Over the same period, a steady decrease in gun-related violence in Chicago mirrored national trends, according to the bipartisan council.

“Because the data do not reflect a clear, causal relationship or a significant difference from national trends, it is not possible with this report’s methods to conclude that the sentencing enhancements over the past 10 years have had a measurable effect on public safety,” the group said in a report on its findings that was released early this year.

To bolster the argument for boosting minimum sentences for gun possession, McCarthy has nodded to New York, where he once was a top police official.

In 2007, New York enacted a mandatory minimum sentence of 3 1/2 years for illegal gun possession — one of the major reasons for New York City’s huge decrease in gun violence over the past decade, according to McCarthy.

The next year, NFL star Plaxico Burress was busted for carrying a handgun that accidentally went off and shot him. He pleaded guilty to a lesser offense and got a two-year prison term.

Because of the Burress case, New York City became known as being tough on illegal gun possession. But Richard Aborn of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice said Burress’ sentence shows not everyone convicted in that state gets the minimum sentence of 3 1/2 years. He said he thinks Burress’ two-year sentence is the norm for gun possession — and not the 3 1/2-year minimum — because of plea deals.

“The mandatory sentencing statute is being applied unevenly in New York City, diminishing its potential for deterrence,” Aborn said.

“Except in the rarest of circumstances, the statute needs to be applied vigorously and consistently to send a resounding message that illegal gun possession won’t be tolerated.”

Mixing guns, drugs

Zalewski, the state representative who sponsored the unsuccessful bill last year to enact tougher gun sentences, said he’s considering another bill that would include stiffer gun penalties as part of a larger criminal justice reform package.

“There is no possible way we could pass a gun-enhancement bill all by itself,” Zalewski said. “We learned that last year.”

He envisions the bill would include a proposal by the Emanuel administration and Alvarez to ease penalties for possession of small amounts of heroin and cocaine.

In testimony before the legislative committee in August, Alvarez said: “Right now at Cook County Jail, approximately 27 percent of the pretrial detainees are being held on drug offenses. At the same time, approximately 7 percent of inmates are held on theft charges, while only 3.9 percent are held on felony weapons crimes. These numbers clearly demonstrate that we need to make reasonable adjustments to the manner in which we arrest, prosecute and incarcerate offenders in Cook County.”

Zalewski said he thinks a bill that keeps people out of prison for possessing small amounts of drugs could give some legislators incentive to vote for stiffer penalties for felons with guns.

“I don’t think you can pass something like lower offenses for small amounts of drugs without a tougher penalty for violent offenders,” he said. “Too many members would be afraid of taking a soft-on-crime vote.”

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