Get anti-crime laws right before putting them on the books

Focus on measures that actually make people safe.

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A Chicago police officer hands out informational pamphlets on how to anonymously give information to police that could help in solving crimes, during a town hall meeting at Lavizzo Elementary School Nov. 29 in Chicago, after recent violence in the Roseland neighborhood that left an eighth grader and his mother dead in two separate shooting incidents.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Suddenly, there’s a rush in Springfield to enact bills to fight crime. In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot is circulating the latest draft of her Victims Justice Ordinance among City Council members. Before speeding new measures into law, it’s important to get them right.

Republican legislators unveiled their own bills a couple of weeks ago and may add more. Among other provisions, the GOP bills would allocate $100 million for police departments to hire officers and buy equipment, toughen sentences for gun crimes and allow counties to opt out of some provisions of the criminal justice reform law Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed last January.

Without Democratic support, however, the Republican bills are unlikely to go anywhere.

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Meanwhile, House Speaker Chris Welch, D-Hillside, said last week the Democrats will introduce their own package of anti-crime bills to avoid looking like the party that is soft on crime. He did not give details of what will be in the legislation.  

In Chicago, Lightfoot is renewing an effort to pass her Victims Justice Ordinance, which stalled in September. The ordinance would allow the city to sue suspected gang members, recover damages and seize property connected to alleged gang activity through forfeiture. As this editorial page wrote last September, asset seizures are an outdated, ineffective approach.

“Crime has overtaken all the other issues,” state Rep. Martin Moylan, D-Des Plaines, told us. “People used to talk about the budget, accountability and other issues. Now, all they are talking about is crime.”

In an election year, candidates are already thinking about what the opposition mailers hitting their constituents’ mail boxes will accuse them of.

Among the issues some lawmakers are concerned about are the rise in carjackings and the fear that organized rings of adults are relying on teenagers, who face more lenient penalties if they are caught, to steal the cars. There is also concern about organized retail theft by people who steal large amounts of merchandise from stores or arrange to sell the stolen items.

In addition, legislators are focusing on assaults on victims by groups of people in the city and suburbs, and a new law that allows people on electronic monitoring for serious crimes to be away from home for 48 hours before being charged with felony escape.

Carjacking, retail theft and problems with electronic monitoring are serious problems that must be dealt with.

The question, as one lawmaker said, is, “How do you make people feel safe?”

Last year, the Cook County medical examiner’s office recorded 1,077 homicides, 1,002 of them gun-related. It was the first time the office recorded more than 1,000 homicides since 1994. Carjackings are up nearly 300% since 2019. Some other types of crime, however, have decreased.

To move the needle on crime, it doesn’t work to respond to surges in violence with policies drawn up to suit political needs. The policies that work are those that involve sustained effort over a period of time. Politicians tempted to grandstand on crime in the coming election will just make things worse.

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In the past, bills that did no more than stiffen penalties on various types of crime typically sailed through the Legislature. The criminal justice reform legislation Pritzker signed was designed to reverse that trend. Now, though, the reforms are getting pushback from police and some prosecutors.

Some lawmakers are feeling “reform fatigue” after years of wrestling with criminal justice issues. That’s understandable, but they can’t afford to walk away from continued efforts to improve both public safety and fairness in our justice system.

Lawmakers proposing new bills should be armed with facts, not hyperbole. A bill filed Thursday by state Rep Ryan Spain, R-Peoria, to repeal last January’s reform bill — lock, stock and barrel — is not helpful.

Just one example of legislation that would yield benefits would be a bill to address the proliferation of “ghost guns,” firearms people assemble by themselves without serial numbers, which are needed to trace the guns. Some ghost guns include no metal and don’t set off metal detectors. On Thursday, Chicago Police Supt. David Brown announced two arrests and the seizure of 35 guns, dozens of loaded magazines and models used to produce ghost guns.

For a safer future, any new laws should be part of a thoughtful plan to reduce crime, not just knee-jerk proposals based on politics.

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