Quit blaming Chicago’s gun violence on ‘lenient’ laws and judges

Like speeding, carrying a gun is inherently dangerous, but usually non-injurious, conduct. The best way to reduce it is to address the reasons it occurs

SHARE Quit blaming Chicago’s gun violence on ‘lenient’ laws and judges

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file photo

Flanked by the police superintendent, Chicago’s mayor proclaimed at a press conference: “Time in jail has become like a revolving door, and clearly, it’s not a deterrent. … If you commit a gun crime, you should do the time.”

A quote from last week? No, that was Rahm Emanuel, promoting mandatory minimum sentencing alongside then-Supt. Garry McCarthy in 2013, when homicides were at their lowest level since 1965.

The press event was crafted to convey seriousness of purpose. But when Emanuel stepped down six years later, he left behind a city government without a comprehensive plan to prevent or respond to gun violence, as well as a police department led by another superintendent, Eddie Johnson, who had already adopted McCarthy’s rhetoric about the justice system being to blame.

Opinion bug


The 2019 mayoral election was crowded and contentious, but the historic runoff between two African-American women was also encouraging to many residents seeking a safer and more equitable city. Voters elevated two candidates known to be critical of Emanuel’s pursuit of law-and-order politicking over violence prevention and public accountability. Both Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle explicitly campaigned in favor of criminal justice reform, police oversight, and comprehensive approaches to violence reduction. All are sorely needed, and city-county cooperation is required to get them done.

No one should expect full implementation of these strategies within Mayor Lightfoot’s first 100 days in office. That said, the city would be wise to immediately fold up its long-running public safety shell game, in which the problem is always made to appear under one of the other two branches of government, the state Legislature or the courts.

In particular, the Chicago Police Department should stop characterizing weighty courtroom concerns like legal innocence, due process, the presumption of pretrial release, illegal search and seizure, public safety risks and proportionality as lenience. For one thing, Cook County is already responsible for 58% of people committed to state prison for weapons possession (32% higher than its share of people committed for other offenses). For another, CPD has not made an arrest in 93% of Chicago’s shootings and murders in the first half of 2019; nothing courts do is more “lenient” than that.

CPD is not only tight-lipped about its clearance rates. Are its in-house risk scores, gang database, and surveillance centers supported by any evidence at all? Has it made any progress on its allegedly race-biased 911 response times to life-and-death calls and DUI checkpoint locations? If it has data on these matters, it hasn’t held a press conference.

Instead, CPD uses its numbers and its microphone to publicly speculate about whether courts function in a way that meets its approval. It complains about a revolving door whether crime is up or down and before and after bail reform. It presents misleading statistics using language like “gun offender,” a linguistic trick that pools the huge number of Chicagoans with unlicensed access to a gun with the comparatively tiny number of people who actually commit gun violence. It does this even though most people who carry a gun without state authorization are doing so for self-defense, not because they intend to draw or use it.

If authorities did this same statistical pooling of drivers who speed with those who crash while drunk driving, you would likely qualify as a “repeat vehicle offender” over a lifetime of owning a car. Like speeding, carrying a gun is inherently dangerous, but usually non-injurious, conduct. The best way to reduce it is to address the reasons it occurs.

Police accountability is key. Gun-carrying rates are higher when residents don’t trust police to protect them; violent crime clearance rates are lower when victims and witnesses fear contact with police. Yet, just the other night, the Fraternal Order of Police claimed the opposite — that holding four officers accountable for misconduct related to the murder of Laquan McDonald could put public safety at risk.

The FOP said this despite the fact that its own members, like all Chicagoans, would be safer if police who abuse or lie are removed from service and other recommended reforms are implemented.

The change in mayoral administration is an extraordinary opportunity, apparently popular with voters, to rethink Chicago’s entire approach to safety and equity. It will require uncomfortable truths and setting aside old habits and old grudges. It can save precious lives.

Stephanie Kollmann is the policy director at the Children and Family Justice Center, Bluhm Legal Clinic, Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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