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Editorial: A smarter way to stop habitual gun offenders

Illinois State Sen. Kwame Raoul (left) sponsored a bill signed into law last month that toughens sentencing for repeat gun crimes. Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson (right) supported the bill. | James Foster/Sun-Times file

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As police fanned out across the city Friday to guard against Fourth of July weekend shootings, a group including Illinois Sen. Kwame Raoul and Police Supt. Eddie T. Johnson announced a new effort to cut down on gun crime.

Although the legislation has yet to be drawn up, the idea behind it — “presumptive guidelines” — looks to us like a smart way to keep the worst gun offenders off the streets for longer periods of time. It would crack down harder on gun crimes without stripping judges of all discretion — and that means it could pull enough votes in the Legislature to become law.

Chicago police long have complained that individuals with lengthy gun rap sheets do only short stints behind bars before they are right back on the street. Last year, about 75 percent of the people who were arrested for illegal gun possession from January through March were back on the street by June. In August, four men who were arrested in connection with a murder had among them 65 arrests, including 10 for gun offenses.

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“The vast majority of the violent crime that does occur in the city is driven by a very small percentage of individuals who have wreaked havoc on some of our neighborhoods for far, far too long,” Johnson said.

The idea behind presumptive guidelines is to push judges — all but ordering them — to hand out stiffer sentences to repeat gun offenders. If a particular gun crime carries a sentence of three to 10 years, judges might be told repeat offenders should get seven 10 years, for example. The idea, Raoul said, is to “incapacitate” repeat gun offenders by keeping them in prison longer.

If a judge found extenuating circumstances in a case, he or she still would be free to impose a lesser sentence, but would have to explain in writing why. Unlike simply increasing mandatory minimum sentences, that allows judges to handle defendants on a case-by-case basis, which should make it easier to get a bill through the Legislature.

“This is a way of guiding the sentencing for violent offenders without totally hamstringing the judiciary,” Raoul said.

State Rep. Michael J. Zalewski, D-Riverside, who in the past has pushed for tougher mandatory sentences, called the “presumptive guidelines” an innovative approach that “gets us toward a place where repeat gun offenders are held accountable.”

Last Fourth of July weekend, shootings in Chicago killed 10 and injured 53. On Memorial Day, it was six dead and 63 wounded. Just last weekend, eight died and 47 were injured. At the current rate, guns will take 700 lives in Chicago by year’s end.

Midsummer is a time when gun violence typically peaks in Chicago. No single approach can stop it. But this creative legislation, when it is in final form, could be a piece of the solution.

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