Fourteen of the candidates for mayor responded to our question about gun crime sentences. We asked: What is your view as to the appropriate length of incarceration and punishment for gun offenses in Chicago?
Here are their full responses, in the order we received them (This was updated Dec. 26 to include the full response of state Rep. La Shawn K. Ford. It had been omitted in error):
Supporting longer sentences for criminals who commit violent crimes with guns is an easy call. As a civil rights lawyer, I strongly support efforts to reform the criminal justice system. But victims and their families have rights, too, one of which is to be able to walk to work, school or the store without being shot to death. One of the first, most important steps in getting illegal guns off our streets is to enforce the laws we already have on the books, which means sending the message that illegal use of guns to commit crimes will not be tolerated here.
I support the new law that requires the higher sentencing for the most serious gun crimes. Although, in the current state of society, incarceration in some cases is necessary but may not be the most effective way to combat gun violence in Chicago. Recently, the prestigious Police Executive Research Forum (Forum) issued an action plan to reduce gun violence in the United States. The Forum identified key measures to keep guns out of the hands of people who are legally prohibited from owning them, (see Police Executive Research Forum, Key Findings and an Action Plan to Reduce Gun Violence, June 8, 2018) Among the measures are:
- Strengthening federal and state background check systems to include information on drug abuse and mental health
- Conduct background checks for all private sales and transfers
- Provide sufficient time for law enforcement to conduct background checks, and
- Expand criteria for denying a firearm purchase to include stalking and intimate partner domestic violence I support these measures and would add a requirement that companies who terminate an employee for violent or threatening behavior must report the incident to law enforcement. In turn, law enforcement would determine if the now-terminated employee poses a threat of violent retaliation to the former employer and co-workers. In addition, the Forum calls for support of victim and witness protection programs for individuals who were subjected to intimidation with an illegal firearm. I support the proposals and would organize a Mayor’s Office campaign to raise awareness of the consequences of possessing a firearm illegally and services available to victims and witnesses. The Forum emphasized that individuals can be subjected to gun violence at home when guns are unsecured and unstable family members have access to them. The Forum called for expansion of Orders of Protection laws to allow family members to ask the Courts to remove firearms temporarily from unstable homes. I support the strongest measures possible. Most gun crimes are committed by a small number of criminals. This is significant. It is up to all of us to support the Chicago Police Department (CPD) in deterring the small number of individuals who inflict carnage on our streets and communities. A good place to start is with vigorous investigation of non-fatal shooting and gun possession cases to prevent future shootings and homicides. I support efforts by CPD to strengthen these types of investigations. Advancements in ballistics technology have significantly improved law enforcement. The Forum noted that advanced technology has made it easier to identify weapons that were used in multiple crimes and the original owner. Experts can compare and analyze guns, bullets and shell casings recovered from crime scenes and help police officers trace the origins of firearms to the owner or seller. I support efforts by CPD and other law enforcement agencies to adopt advanced ballistics technology.
We are a law-based land and 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 – particularly people of color who are not able to afford proper representation. And because of that fact alone, I worked tirelessly to have a state bill passed on bail reform. My work on this subject resulted in the passing of a law that made it illegal and unlawful for inmates with non-violent misdemeanors to stay in jail for months (and sometimes, years) on end because they are unable to afford very minimal bail fees. The old system made being poor, criminal. The three strikes rule is a “camouflage” made to help the for-profit prison system. As long as you pay your debt for the crime committed, you should be a free from any further punishment. Furthermore, I believe that the expungement process to remove records after a full sentence has been served should become easier to access so that ex-offenders can return to productive lives and find employment that helps them re-join society.
There is sparse evidence supporting longer sentences leading to a reduction in crime and recidivism rates, or as a deterrent from future criminal activity. Longer sentences are undoubtedly a burden to the families who have to pick up slack on behalf of their incarcerated relatives. I’ve personally observed and experienced the immense impact these extended sentences can have on loved ones. Policy intended to scare people into correct behavior is fundamentally flawed. Without qualifying evidence, I cannot support incarcerating people for longer periods of time.
Instead of longer sentences, we need more evidence-based methods for preventing individuals from becoming embedded in criminal activity. Chicago’s approach to violence has long been piecemeal, which is why I’m advocating for an Office of Violence Prevention. We cannot rely on our criminal justice system alone to deter our citizens from criminal activity. We need restorative and compassionate alternatives.
I do not believe there is a one-size-fits-all answer as to the appropriate length of incarceration and punishment for gun offenses in Chicago. As a former federal prosecutor and lawyer who represented, on a pro bono basis, people who had been wrongfully convicted, I know that context matters.
Of course there is a role for incarceration and punishment as a deterrent for people who have committed gun crimes, as a deterrent for others, and as a demonstration to victims and the public that there is justice. When possible, we should use diversion programs for first-time offenders and low-level offenses. I also support eliminating cash bail—our jails should not be debtors’ prisons for the poor. I have long supported the work of the Chicago Council of Lawyers and others to advocate for the elimination of this system. Lastly, we’ve got to educate children about the dangers of gun violence to prevent these crimes from being committed in the first place.
More details about my plans to address gun violence are available in my public safety plan.
JOHN KENNETH KOZLAR
In the summer of 2017, Gov. Rauner signed a bill 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 legislation also created a diversion program for first-time gun offenders and expanded probation eligibility for first-time drug offenders. The Sun-Times editorial board has argued consistently for shorter sentences for many crimes, but we supported this legislation. But we struggled with our decision. It was not an easy call.QUESTION:What is your view as to the appropriate length of incarceration and punishment for gun offenses in Chicago?
We have to come to two realizations in Chicago: 1. There are some bad people in our city who make it hard for others to live a safe life, and 2. Illegal guns are a problem in Chicago. Therefore, we need to tackle both issues. 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. The penalty will act as a deterrent to carrying illegal guns,with the intent to change the habits and outcomes in Chicago. The outcomes have been too many illegal guns on our streets, thousands of shootings each year, and many deaths. Jail-time will be a part of the policy change for anyone who carries an illegal gun, with a stricter penalty to anyone who carries an illegal gun that is loaded. One to three years seems like an appropriate length of time for a first time offense, but will work with our community members and law enforcement professionals to formulatea fair policy for all of Chicago.
I am pleased that there has been a major reduction in the Cook County Jail population due to reformed sentencing on non-violent drug violations like possession. But 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. We also need to work as closely as possible with Federal prosecutors to make certain that the full effect of Federal law is brought to bear on this issue.
La SHAWN K. FORD
I can understand why your editorial board struggled with this issue. It is a difficult one. The bill (signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner) is well-intentioned, but it is because of tough-on-crime policies like these that I recently created my bill to expunge smaller scale marijuana offenses.
The Rauner gun bill legislation had the positive diversion piece for first-time offenders, but the rest of it replicates War on Drug strategies. There are two main problems:
- Due to years of overcriminalization, many people of color in West and South side neighborhoods already have a criminal record and are eligible for more severe sentences, and
- Many people in these neighborhoods — particularly young people — carry a gun out of fear, and a lack of trust that the police will protect them, so they feel they need to take matters into their own hands.
Like 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. We are only perpetuating a cycle of removing people and sending them back with a record, increasing the likelihood that they will be sent back again. We need to break this cycle. We need fewer people on our streets with a felony conviction, not more. We do not need mandatory minimums. We should do everything we can to better understand who would benefit from diversion programs, and do our best to divert those who commit a weapons offense into these programs. We need to connect them with resources that will place them on a better path. Addressing our violence issues will not be easily fixed by any one approach.
Such legislation results in more people locked up, more families disrupted, and more people who return to the community with a record. It will not end violence and it may only unintentionally make the problem worse.
We should focus our efforts on serious gun crimes, particularly those committed by repeat violent offenders and members of criminal organizations. Penalties for serious gun crime in Chicago should remain strong. We should also go after illegal gun traffickers, who bring cheap and illegal guns into the city with little regard for future consequence. However, if we strengthen punishment for gun crimes across the board and our efforts only result in increased incarceration and not safer streets, then our policies have failed. Changing the length of punishment will not stop the epidemic of gun violence in the city.
A study by the Center for Disease Control in 2013 found that community programs and on-the-ground policing were more effective at reducing gun violence than mandatory sentences. That’s why we must invest in our neighborhoods. I’ve proposed the 50NEW (Neighborhood Education Works) initiative, which would transform under-utilized schools into a community school concept, ultimately helping to close the achievement gap, create opportunity in neighborhoods that for too long have been left behind, and attack the root causes of violence. Community schools give children new opportunities through daycare programs and wraparound services like healthcare and nutrition programs, while offering their parents job training and help with language skills. These are the types of investments we need to make to truly go after gun violence in Chicago.
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 the law. I cannot accept our city’s devastatingly high shooting rate, but I don’t want to see more Chicago residents languishing in prison. We need high-impact re-entry and treatment programs that help transition ex-offenders back into our neighborhoods and reduce recidivism. I am committed to diversion and violence prevention programs for low-level offenders and high-risk youth that offer alternatives to crime, which is why I pledged $50 million annually to a Mayor’s Office of Violence Prevention and Reduction. A coordinated, citywide violence prevention effort is critical to addressing gun violence.
We have the talent and the will in Chicago to make a significant impact on crime in our city. We just need a leader in City Hall who is ready to get it done.
It’s no secret that violent gun crime in Chicago has exploded. Far too many families lose loved ones, even children, to gun violence every year, and many more families live in fear. This has been a major factor in a growing exodus of population, particularly from the south and west sides.
That said, as County President, I opposed this particular legislation. I believe the legislation would not have reduced gun violence. Illinois has raised gun possession penalties six times since 2000, tripling the number of people in prison for possessing a weapon, mostly in Cook County. Yet Chicago is experiencing near record levels of violence. State assessments find that longer sentences do not make us safer.
Rather than specifically targeting the shooters, the legislation targets gun possession. The reality is that weak federal gun laws and lax enforcement have failed in communities where it is often easier to buy an illegal gun than it is to buy fresh produce. These same communities are the most plagued by violence. We shouldn’t compound the failure to regulate illegal guns and keep people safe with mandatory sentences that break-up families, robbing children of parents and critical income earners. We’ve already experienced the negative (and racially disparate) consequences of the overly punitive strategy with the failed “War on Drugs.”
Some say that as long as gun offenders are behind bars, they can’t re-offend. 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 sentencing won’t prevent recidivism.
What does prevent recidivism is programs to help returning citizens re-integrate into society. Instead of adding years to sentences and spending millions of dollars on prisons, I propose we invest resources helping the most at-risk citizens flourish in the legitimate economy.
For example, we should invest in programs like READI, the Rapid Employment and Development Initiative by the Heartland Alliance, which takes Chicagoans most likely to shoot or be shot and for 18 months gives them transitional jobs, cognitive behavioral therapy and legal and social services to help them forge a better future. These kind of acute interventions must be supplemented by overall investment in public education, public health and mental health and jobs.
Tougher laws and longer sentences for non-violent offenders won’t make or communities safer. Investing in schools, public health, mental health and economic development will.
I believe that we need to keep nonviolent offenders out of jail, but he also believes itswe’llpast time to get tough on gun crimes. Thecriminal justice system must become far more aggressive in taking guns, gang members and violent offenders off our streets. To get tough on gun crime, Gery will focus on:
I will create a Chicago Police Department Deputy Superintendent for Gun Violence Prevention. This Deputy Superintendent will oversee officers who are specifically trained to hunt down illegal guns and take them off our streets permanently. The person will create and coordinate a gun violence strategy with state and federal prosecutors to curb gun violence and tackle the flow of illegal guns. Finally, we must work with legislators in Springfield to ensure that anyone who commits a gun crime goes to prison for at least three years.
I will also push legislation in Springfield that requires gun dealers to safely store firearms, and make copies of FOID cards or IDs and attach them to documentation detailing each gun sale. New legislation should also require dealers to open their places of business for inspection by state and local police.
Sentencing length – both anecdotally, and according to research – does little to deter gun possession and gun violence. Anecdotally, 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, than risk being without protection in dangerous neighborhoods. The refusal to acknowledge that reality only ensures that our policies as it relates to gun violence will continue to be reactionary and less than effective.
Efforts to curb gun violence would garner more significant impact if they focused on licensing gun shops and addressing loopholes that create easy access to guns. We also must direct our efforts to identifying where the guns that flood communities are coming from. I had a conversation with a community organizer recently who stated that he hadn’t known just how easy it was to access a gun – that with $60 and “a friend of a friend” he could obtain one. Gun access precedes gun possession. Laws that focus on sentencing without focusing on access and the entry points and flows of guns will not be effective in reducing gun violence.
Moreover, comprehensive community-based approaches are more effective than limited interventions. Since 2000 Illinois has increased penalties for gun offenses several times. The state spends $4.5 billion on incarceration. A study called “Million Dollar Blocks” found that the State spent $1 million incarcerating individuals from one block in the Austin community. The study also found that more than 50% of prisoners eventually return to prison within three years (called “prison-cycling”). Many of these individuals are returning to the same disinvested communities which have become hotspots for mass incarceration and are also the areas of the city experiencing the highest levels of gun violence (I live in one of them – Garfield Park).
The “appropriate length of prison time for repeat gun offenders” strikes me as the secondary question to how we tighten up the points of gun access. Moreover, the overarching question should center on how the city of Chicago will counter gun violence through actual investments in communities that address economic distress, housing instability, lack of access to healthcare, lack of quality education options, etc. We should be implementing a comprehensive plan to address gun violence at the root, such as the plan put together by The “Building a Safe Chicago” coalition a few years ago. These sorts of interventions should be supported tangibly through specific allocations of resources to the entities at the frontline of doing this work. Scaling up working models should be a top priority. Without that kind of plan, measures that increase sentencing – though good political fodder – will ring hollow.
Focusing our efforts on increasing sentencing ensures an increase in spending on incarceration, at a time when we need to be increasing spending on scaling up comprehensive violence prevention measures, diversionary measures that prevent incarceration and recidivism, and investments in communities that reduce violence at the root.
The homicide and violent crime rates in Chicago are outrageous but, as the Sun-Times has indicated, we need to find a balance between punishment and deterrence on the one hand and the need to provide second chances for first time offenders, recognizing the hazards that accompany one sentenced to prison time and branded a felon, on the other. Because the misdemeanor UUW statute and the Aggravated UUW statute are almost identical, I would allow first-time UUW offenders to receive probation along with appropriate mandatory diversion programs to steer these individuals away from guns. Currently, a first-time offender of the Aggravated Unlawful Use of Weapons statute must serve 1-3 years in prison. I don’t agree with that. First-time offenders deserve a second chance before they are sent off to prison. For second me UUWoffenders,theirsentencesshouldmirrorthecurrentUnlawfulUseofWeaponbyaFelonStatute.
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