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EDITORIAL: Should gun offenders do more time? Here’s what candidates for mayor say

Colin Boyle/Sun-Times file photo

This editorial was updated to include the response of state Rep. La Shawn K. Ford. It had been omitted in error. 

Last year, we threw our support behind a proposed state law to lock up repeat gun offenders longer.

We have long argued for shorter sentences and alternatives to incarceration for many crimes, as a matter of fairness, class and racial blindness and even greater public safety. Prisons excel at making hardened criminals. But gun crimes, we had come to believe, were a different matter, given the gun violence in Chicago.

Specifically, we supported a bill, signed into law by Gov. Bruce Rauner, that instructs judges to impose sentences at the higher end of the range for serious gun crimes — the unlawful use of a weapon by a felon and aggravated unlawful use of a weapon. The law allows judges to impose shorter sentences, but they must put their reasoning in writing.

EDITORIAL

It was a difficult call for us, as it should have been. There is no one indisputably correct balance between the “law-and-order” and “social justice” approaches to reducing crime rates.

Now we thought we’d put the same question to the folks running for mayor. What, to their thinking, is the “appropriate length of incarceration and punishment for gun offenses?”

Nine of the 14 candidates who responded to our emailed question said they support the tougher sentencing law, though most of them included caveats and expressed reservations. Five candidates flatly said they do not support the stiffer penalties.

What was most telling, however, was the level of nuance the candidates brought to their answers. Nobody wanted to be seen as soft on crime, but nobody just wanted to lock everybody up. Their answers didn’t always reveal exactly where they stand, but certainly how they lean.

Among the candidates who got back to us, the five who most pointedly said they favor the tougher sentencing requirement were Bob Fioretti, John Kenneth Kozlar, Paul Vallas, Bill Daley and Gery Chico.

Fioretti wrote, “Supporting longer sentences for criminals who commit violent crimes with guns is an easy call.”

Kozlar wrote: “My solution is to send a clear message to people who terrorize our streets and/or carry illegal guns — there will be a strict penalty.”

Vallas wrote: “I don’t think Chicago is in any position to relax its treatment of gun crimes when it is suffering 3,000 largely unsolved shootings a year. If anything, we need to be more vigilant of judges to make certain they are treating these cases with the toughness they deserve.”

Daley wrote: “Every neighborhood in Chicago needs to be safe. I support tougher sentencing for first-time and repeat offenders to get them off the street. Federal, state, county and city governments must do better, and the courts need to start implementing longer sentences as demanded by law.”

And Chico wrote: “The criminal justice system must become far more aggressive in taking guns, gang members and violent offenders off our streets.”

Yet Vallas and Daley also hastened to stress that they’re not keen on incarceration as a general rule. Vallas wrote that he was “pleased” to see “a major reduction in the Cook County Jail population” due to sentencing reforms for non-violent drug offenses. Daley said he supports programs that offer a diversion from incarceration for “low-level offenders.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, strongly arguing the social justice approach to fighting crime, were Amara Enyia, Neal Sales-Griffin, Toni Preckwinkle and La Shawn K. Ford. All three made the point that there is no evidence longer prison sentences lead to less crime and lower recidivism rates. And all three wrote that longer sentences just tear up families while ignoring the reality of why some otherwise law-abiding people carry illegal guns.

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“I’ve had conversations with young men who have stated that they would rather take the risk of being picked up by law enforcement for carrying a gun for safety reasons,” Enyia wrote, “than risk being without protection in dangerous neighborhoods.”

“Some say that as long as gun offenders are behind bars, they can’t offend,” Preckwinkle wrote. “But unless we are willing to engage in cruel and unusual punishment by locking folks up for 15 or 20 years for mere gun possession, longer sentences won’t prevent recidivism.

“What does prevent recidivism,” Preckwinkle continued, “is programs to help returning citizens reintegrate into society.”

The 2017 legislation included a diversion program for some first-time offenders, which is a positive in Ford’s view. But he likened the rest of it to the war on drugs. “This over-reliance on harsh punishment will result in more people of color behind bars without addressing any of the root causes of why people are carrying a gun in the first place,” he wrote.

Lori Lightfoot stressed that stiff sentences can serve a purpose, but that the 2017 gun sentencing law amounted to a simple-minded “one-size-fits-all” approach. “Context matters,” she wrote.

More difficult to categorize were the responses given by Willie Wilson, Dorothy Brown, Jerry Joyce and Susana Mendoza. All four signaled at least a tepid acceptance of tougher sentences for gun crimes, but they all were quick to emphasize what a woefully limited part of the solution incarceration is.

Wilson wrote: “We are a law-based land I will always follow that law as a law-abiding citizen. However, I believe that in many cases, individuals are treated as guilty until proven innocent.”

Mendoza wrote: “We should focus our efforts on serious gun crimes, particularly those committed by repeat violent offenders and members of criminal organizations. … We should also go after illegal gun traffickers.”

We urge you to read the candidates’ answers in full. We could only touch on their views in this editorial.

One of these 14 candidates likely will be the next mayor of Chicago, and he or she will face no bigger challenge than bringing down the city’s violent crime rate.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

Bill Daley: daleyformayor.com
Paul Vallas: vallasforallchicago.com
Gery Chico: chicoformayor.com
Amara Enyia: amaraenyia.com
Robert “Bob” Fioretti: bobforchicago.com
La Shawn Ford: fordforchicago.com
Willie Wilson: williewilsonformayor.com
Ja’Mal Green: greenforchicago.com
Dorothy Brown: dorothyformayor.com/2019
Susana Mendoza: susanamendoza.com
Jerry Joyce: jerryjoyce2019.com
Lori Lightfoot: lightfootforchicago.com
Toni Preckwinkle: toniforchicago.com
Garry McCarthy: garryformayor.com
Neal Sales-Griffin: nealformayor.com
John Kenneth Kozlar: johnkozlar.com
Roger L. Washington: www.washingtonformayor.com