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Ill. House’s Black Caucus stalls bill targeting repeat gun offenders

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

SPRINGFIELD — A measure targeting repeat gun offenders — which Chicago’s top cop has promoted as a way to see a 50 percent drop in gun violence within a year — met approval in the Illinois House but is being held via a procedural filing amid a south suburban lawmaker’s request for further negotiation.

The bill was pushed by Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson and Mayor Rahm Emanuel to try to combat the city’s violent crime epidemic. And after nearly two hours of debate, the measure cleared the Illinois House 70-41.

But a motion to reconsider the vote was filed by State Rep. Thaddeus Jones, D-Calumet City, on behalf of the House’s Legislative Black Caucus. It essentially puts a hold on the bill until the motion is removed. Jones voted yes on the bill, which allowed him to file the motion. Jones also left the House floor after the vote passed, meaning a motion to try to remove the filing couldn’t be taken up.

The bill’s House sponsor, Illinois Republican Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, however said he would address the filing on Tuesday, and he said he felt confident he would be able to defeat the motion to consider.

According to State Rep. LaShawn Ford, D-Chicago, the motion was filed to allow for further negotiation on the bill. Ford, who voted no for the bill, said Jones wants a trailer bill attached, with additional criminal justice reforms that were discussed in negotiations.

In a statement, Jones said the Black Caucus believed the bill is “incomplete.” Jones said the legislators want a plan that includes revenue that will fully fund violence prevention programs and provide more educational opportunities and job programs. Additionally, the caucus said it wants gun violence to be declared a public health crisis.

Durkin said additional requests aren’t a condition of the bill as passed.

“The bill has already been vetted, super vetted in committee and also on the floor, and this is a priority right now for the city of Chicago, the mayor and the superintendent,” Durkin said. “But this is the kind of stuff we expect, unfortunately, in the weaning hours of the Legislature. It’s just gamesmanship.”

Durkin called the motion “unfortunate,” adding he had gone out of his way with the legislation to accommodate the [Legislature’s] Black Caucus.

“At some point they’ve got to be reasonable,” Durkin said.

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The vote came during another violent holiday weekend in Chicago, in which a 15-year-old boy was among four killed and at least 32 wounded in Chicago shootings by late Monday night.

Johnson last week told a Senate committee the bill would target 1,400 repeat offenders who pose a threat to society as offenders who are more likely to commit gun crimes. It was the second time Johnson has pushed for the bill in Springfield, which he said would create a “mental culture to not pick up a gun.”

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

There was resistance by some members of the Black Caucus and other Democratic lawmakers, who claimed there’s no evidence to show it would help reduce violence.

State Rep. Sonya Harper, an Englewood neighborhood native, called Johnson’s claim that the bill will reduce violence by 50 percent within a year “the biggest lie I’ve ever heard in Springfield.”

Rep. Christian Mitchell, D-Chicago, called the issue “personal.”

“I hear gunshots every single night,” Mitchell said. But he questioned whether longer sentences for repeat shooters would truly address gun violence. Mitchell said a better deterrent would be strengthening the Chicago Police Department and their ability to solve crimes.

“The premise that if we increase the sentencing on people, it’s going to deter them from committing crimes. This is what is behind so much criminal justice policy over the last 40 years in this country. And we have seen the proof that it is simply not true,” said state Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago.

Guzzardi said he didn’t support the measure because he believed lengthening sentences doesn’t stop offenders from committing crimes. He also linked a spike in crime in Chicago to when the city saw budget cuts due to the impasse.

Guzzardi said the resources Chicago needs to really address the root cause of violence are being zeroed out.

The bill cleared the Senate on April 26. An amendment filed by Durkin added a five-year sunset to the sentencing language for repeat gun offenders — per the request of the Black Caucus. Durkin said the measure would allow the city to re-evaluate the measure to see if it’s proven effective.

Other changes include creating a program for first-time, nonviolent offenders charged with crimes related to possession of weapons. It also creates a Violent Crimes Intelligence Task Force led by the Illinois State Police to try to reduce and prevent illegal possession and use of firearms.

Additional provisions would reduce the protected area for drug crimes from 1,000 to 500 feet, and expand programs for first-time offenders and people who have been on probation or supervision. It also would allow the state’s Prisoner Review Board to terminate a person’s mandatory supervised release if they are deemed to be low-risk. And it allows the director of the state’s Department of Correction to grant up to 180 days of sentence credits and adds crimes that are eligible for credits.

After the passage, Emanuel and Johnson on Monday thanked Durkin and the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, for helping to clear the bills through their respective chambers.

“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.

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.

The measure initially stalled in March amid concerns from the governor’s office, Senate Republicans and Johnson over reducing sentences for those charged with possession of 100 grams or more of cocaine, heroin or fentanyl.