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Gun crime sentencing bill pushed by top cop advances, then stalls

Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson talks to reporters in Springfield in February. | Tina Sfondeles/Sun-Times file photo

SPRINGFIELD — Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson on Thursday pushed Illinois senators to approve a bill to lengthen sentencing for repeat gun offenders that he said would create a “mental culture to not pick up a gun.”

The push for a bill to target some of the most dangerous shooters comes as President Donald Trump continues to shed light on Chicago’s murders — with the city boasting the unfortunate distinction last year of having the most murders in two decades.

The Senate bill would suggest judges sentence on the higher end of the existing sentencing ranges for aggravated unlawful use of a firearm and possession of a firearm by a felon for repeat gun offenders. While judges would use their own discretion, the bill may require them to explain their decisions.

But it also includes a number of reforms recommended by Gov. Bruce Rauner’s criminal justice commission — including reducing certain drug possession offenses by one sentencing class, based on the amount.

The measure was passed by a Senate committee, but its movement was stalled amid lack of Republican support over the sentencing reforms — and concerns from the governor’s office.

That left one of the bill’s sponsors, State Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, scratching his head. But Raoul said he plans to “sit down and entertain whatever suggestions that may be coming from the governor’s office.”

Rauner’s administration, however, would only say the bill is under review.

Raoul said he was confused about the opposition – noting it was Rauner’s executive order that prompted the creation of the commission in order to reduce the state’s prison population. Figures from December show the prison population has dropped by 9.1 percent since Rauner took office.

“If you’re going to hold some people in prison longer, you’ve got to do something to decrease the population of the people who really shouldn’t be there as long as they are. Some of them shouldn’t be there at all,” Raoul said.

A similar proposal targeting repeat gun offenders in 2013 failed after members of the Legislative Black Caucus argued it would favor incarceration over rehabilitation and that it would disproportionately affect black communities. The difference in the current bill is that judges would get discretion — noting the offender’s age and mental capacity among other factors.

Johnson for months — at shooting scenes and news conferences — has pushed to increase sentencing for repeat shooters. The superintendent began his Senate testimony Thursday with a stark number: 767 murders in Chicago last year. He said 92 percent of the victims were male; 78 percent were African-American and 75 percent were between the ages of 15 and 34. Ninety one percent of those killed last year were killed with a gun.

“I’ve seen too many lives torn apart and too many parents lose a child.”

Johnson told the Illinois Senate Criminal Law Committee. “Quite frankly, as an African American leader I’m disgusted. And as a cop, I’m very angry.”

Johnson said passage of the bill would create a deterrent for criminals.

“They make the decision to pull the trigger because they don’t fear our judicial system,” Johnson said. “If they fear the judicial system, then it is a deterrent.”

He said passage of the bill would show repeat gun offenders “we’re serious about holding them accountable.”

Johnson, however, noted he’s “uneasy” with some provisions of the bill, including reducing the sentencing for those charged with possession of 100 grams or more of cocaine, heroin or fentanyl. That appears to be the same issue that concerned Senate Republicans.

“To be clear, the drug trade is what drives the gang violence in Chicago and lessening the consequence for high level narcotic dealing and possession makes me very uncomfortable,” Johnson said.

State Sen. Patricia Van Pelt, D-Chicago, grilled Johnson about combating the city’s drug epidemic, saying the accessibility of drugs in low-income neighborhoods is prompting the violence: “I can’t support the bill as is. We have to deal with the drug problem or we’re never going to solve this problem.”

Stephanie Kollmann, policy director for the Children and Family Justice Center at the Northwestern Law Bluhm Legal Clinic, testified that legislators must deal with two separate issues: how to reduce violence in Chicago and how to treat people who are carrying a gun in violation of the law. She noted Illinois already has tough gun laws and legislators should focus on ways to help those trapped in violent neighborhoods, facing grave danger.

“They are in imposed situations. They have to make decisions about how to protect their safety every day. We need to intervene in a way that changes people’s thinking, changing people’s behavior,” Kollmann said.

She said the way to target repeat gun offenders is “intervention at that first touch.”

Kollmann in 2013 wrote a report arguing that people carry guns because they feel unsafe and many people who are likely to become victims cannot legally own guns.

Republicans voted no on the bill, saying they support increased sentencing for repeat gun offenders but wanted a “clean bill” — without the other reforms attached, despite them coming from Rauner’s created commission.

The bill is supported by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Johnson and is being sponsored by Raoul and Sen. Antonio Munoz, D-Chicago, in the Senate.

The measure doesn’t change existing sentencing ranges but instructs the courts that repeat gun offenders should receive sentences in a new range. Offenders charged with unlawful possession of a weapon by a felon currently are sentenced to between three and 14 years. The bill recommends that repeat offenders receive seven to 14 years instead. Those charged with aggravated unlawful use of a weapon — as repeat offenders — would receive a sentence of six to seven years instead of three to seven years.

Other provisions include reducing the protected area for drug crimes from 1,000 to 500 feet, removing public housing as a protected area and requiring prosecutors to prove a connection between the crime and the protected area before a felony can be enhanced; and providing incarcerated offenders with more programming and lower-risk offenders with opportunities after mandatory supervised release.

Emanuel has spent years urging the General Assembly to get tougher on repeat gun offenders, only to come up empty, just as his predecessor, former Mayor Richard M. Daley did.

On Thursday, Emanuel talked as if the latest version of the bill were a done deal before catching a plane to the nation’s capital for a political fundraiser hosted by his longtime allies in Washington, D.C.

“Springfield sees what is happening. Sees the revolving door that the gang-bangers [view] the criminal justice system system [as]—both at the courts as well as in the jail. [They see it] as a joke,” the mayor said at a Chicago news conference to kick off the final phase of a major reconstruction project at the CTA’s Wilson Red Line station.

“This law, I do believe is right. I think the political situation is right. It’s been worked through. And I want to compliment Sen. Kwame Raoul, Reps. [Mike] Zalewski and Elgie Sims in the House [for] working through the issues. But for the first time, Chicago and Illinois [are] gonna go on record: If you are a repeat gun offender, you’re gonna do the time for your crime.”

Contributing: Fran Spielman