Before Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson acknowledged a couple weeks ago that he’s dealing with some challenging medical issues, his top priority was legislative approval of tougher gun sentencing laws in Illinois.
He’s made that clear on numerous occasions, including a recent pitch for support from the Better Government Association.
Johnson’s primary concern, for now at least, should be his health, but finding ways to eradicate Chicago’s “killing fields” is still the city’s most daunting challenge.
We’ve seen the grim statistics over and over: 762 murders in Chicago last year, 56 percent more than New York City’s 335 homicides, and the Big Apple has three times as many people.
Supt. Johnson and many others, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, credit New York’s tougher gun laws for the wide disparity: A mandatory sentence of 3 ½ years in prison for the first firearm possession conviction; in Illinois the sentence, on average, is less than one year for the first conviction and under two years for the second.
That’s a big difference, and City Hall argues more prison time will keep killers off Chicago streets and lower our murder rate, so they’re asking Springfield to enact tougher gun laws.
But it’s not that simple.
Consider that in New York:
♦ Only half of first-time gun offenders actually end up in jail.
♦ The homicide rate has been dropping steadily since 1990, but mandatory sentencing wasn’t approved until 2007, after murders had already declined by 90 percent.
♦ Police credit most of their success to other factors, including thousands of additional street cops, data-driven technology to target “hot spots” and violence-prone offenders, and intensive social services in high crime neighborhoods.
Chicago, by most accounts, is still lagging in those areas.
In addition, critics of tougher sentencing compare the new “War on Guns” to the nation’s “War on Drugs” in the ‘70s and ‘80s, which incarcerated thousands of Blacks and Latinos, many unjustly, without appreciably reducing drug trafficking or usage.
Those critics fear similar consequences if police and prosecutors in places like Chicago, with histories of targeting minorities, are empowered with draconian gun laws.
There’s also the cost: One study indicates cash-strapped Illinois would have spent 400 million additional dollars in the past three years if our sentencing matched New York’s.
So where does that leave us? Well, in the wake of the Laquan McDonald shooting scandal, and a U.S. Justice Department investigation, CPD is revamping training; transparency; accountability and policing procedures; and adding a thousand new officers.
Those reforms will be codified and enforced by a federal watchdog if the Trump administration follows through on its predecessor’s recommendations.
Also, Cook County’s new state’s attorney, Kim Foxx, is promising to reform her scandal-scarred office and attack gun violence more strategically, but she doesn’t support more prison time for weapons offenses.
Foxx and Johnson appear to be sincere about improving their offices, but they have months if not years of work ahead of them to gain the trust of taxpayers and minority communities.
Meanwhile, as President Trump threatens to “send in the feds” to curb Chicago’s violence, experts point out the feds are already here — FBI, DEA, IRS, U.S. Attorney — and those offices should be partnering more effectively with CPD.
Others want “send in the feds” to result in an “airlift” of money and manpower from Washington for social services, housing, education, mentoring, job training and law enforcement.
My takeaway from all of the above is that tougher gun laws may be one piece of this very large and challenging puzzle.
But realistically, Mr. Mayor and Mr. Top Cop: They’re of limited value, and maybe even detrimental, without the other pieces.
Andy Shaw is President and CEO of the Better Government Association.
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