Locking up more people is not the solution to gun violence

One of the key solutions to the problem of gun violence, according to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, is to lock up more people for gun possession.

This impulse has its roots in Emanuel’s push for tough sentencing laws during the Clinton administration, a move meant to shore up Democrats’ electoral prospects.  The approach continues to have political utility: confronted with skyrocketing murder rates in Chicago, Emanuel can point the finger at Springfield.

In his first term, Emanuel pushed to raise the mandatory minimum sentence for first-time gun possession from one to three years, but the proposal was blocked by the legislature’s Black Caucus. Mandatory minimums are a significant factor behind the sharp increase in incarceration levels in Illinois and America, and the impact falls most heavily on African-Americans and Latinos.

Emanuel is trying a different tack this year, with a bill sponsored by State Sen. Kwame Raoul. Instead of increasing sentences for first-time offenders, SB 1722 goes after second-time gun possession offenders. Instead of raising the mandatory minimum, the bill would create a “presumptive minimum,” directing judges to impose sentences at the high end of existing sentencing ranges, unless they can articulate a reason for not doing so.  In effect, the minimum for second-time possession would go up from three to six (in some cases, seven) years.

Tougher sentencing is not new, and the evidence shows it hasn’t worked.

Since 2000, Illinois has increased its penalties for gun offenses six times (including establishing, then increasing, mandatory minimums) and now has some of the harshest punishment in the nation. The number of weapons offenders in Illinois prisons is three times higher than in 2000.

Over most of that time, homicide rates generally fell, but no faster here in Illinois than in states where probation is still an option for gun offenders. In Chicago, homicide rates are spiking dramatically.

Locking more people up on gun possession charges is not the answer, according to a recent report on “Building a Safe Chicago.” The report is from a broad coalition of criminal justice and anti-violence groups, including groups focused on neighborhood safety and handgun violence.

The report asserts that gun possession is associated with “increased risk of victimization and with increased aggression,” and that illegal gun possession must be addressed.

But addressing it effectively requires recognizing that gun possession, in and of itself, is a nonviolent crime. While the risk of violence increases with gun ownership, only a small proportion of gun owners, either legal or illegal, use them against other people.

Instead of recognizing this, however, Illinois gun possession laws “are written as though everyone who breaks them intends imminent violence,” according to the report. Penalties for illegal gun possession are harsher than for some violent crimes.

Meanwhile, penalties for violent gun use are already very heavy. Possessing or using a gun during a felony carries a 15-year mandatory minimum, often added on to the sentence for the underlying crime. (SB 1722 does not address violent gun crimes.)

Criminal penalties for nonviolent gun possession seldom increase public safety. Instead, they “increase contact with higher-risk offenders, strain families, and create economic devastation in communities,” according to the report.  If an individual is involved in the drug trade or is a shooter in a street gang, he will be replaced—and safety is not increased.

For nonviolent gun offenders who are incarcerated, “close contact with high-risk offenders in crowded and violent prison conditions … [will] increase recidivism and therefore decrease public safety.” After prison, these offenders, often young men of color, are locked out of traditional employment and stuck in a cycle of poverty. On top of that, children of incarcerated parents are much more likely to get in trouble down the road.

Harsh gun laws are particularly counterproductive for young people, who are less likely to be deterred by threats of punishment and in most cases will grow out of risky and impulsive behavior, including gang involvement and gun carrying, according to the report. Illinois’ harsh sentencing laws “give permanent felony records and lengthy sentences in adult prisons to a large number of young people who were just about to permanently cease offending,” erecting barriers to education and employment at the very point when such opportunities are potentially life-changing. That’s especially true for black and Latino youth, who are disproportionately affected.

“Giving young people additional prison time and putting them in with older, more violent prisoners at this time in their lives is the wrong approach,” said Stephanie Kollmann of the Family and Children Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law, one of the report’s co-authors.

The report describes three main goals for dealing with gun possession through the criminal justice system: assess individual harm, intent, and risk; hold individuals accountable in ways that reduce risk; and “punish proportionately, in a way that allows restoration to useful citizenship.”  Each of these goals “requires rolling back existing penalties – not increasing them for yet a seventh time.”

SB 1722 goes in the opposite direction.

To make its harsh sentencing provisions more palatable – and no doubt in an effort to reduce the associated costs – SB 1722 also incorporates some sentencing reforms recommended by Gov. Bruce Rauner’s  Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform, which was charged with finding ways to reduce the state’s prison population by 25 percent by 2025.

But the most significant of these reforms are watered down to the point of potentially having negligible impact. The commission recommended decreasing all drug offenses by one felony classification, but SB 1722 does that only for more serious drug crimes while ignoring a recommendation to reduce possession of small amounts of drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor.

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“The public understands that these aren’t serious offenses and we need to stop imprisoning people for them,” Ben Ruddell of the American Civil Liberties Union said of the low-level crimes.  Emanuel and Raoul don’t seem to get that.

But it’s the larger group of more serious offenders—whose sentences would not be affected by SB 1722—who are the biggest drivers of prison population and cost increases, Ruddell said.

“My fear is if this bill passes and becomes law, that will be the end of things for criminal justice reform, and there will not be an appetite to revisit the commission recommendations that are not included in the bill or are included in watered down form,” said Ruddell. “There’s much more to do.”

Raoul touts a state Department of Corrections estimate that the bill would reduce the prison population by nearly 1,500 and save $62 million over its first decade. But meeting the governor’s goal will require reducing the number of inmates by at least five times that amount–and could save five times as much money.  If Raoul’s bill shuts off further changes, Illinois will be stuck with large prison populations – and large prison budgets.

On top of that, Raoul’s numbers may be wildly exaggerated. The state’s Sentencing Policy Advisory Council also looked at SB 1722 and estimated that it would result in a net reduction of inmate population growth of just over 200 by 2025, with minimal cost savings.

That’s money thrown away on ineffective incarceration policies that could be used on economic development and neighborhood safety in communities now ravaged by mass incarceration, violence and disinvestment.  According to “Building a Safe Chicago,” higher incarceration levels due to longer sentences have cost Illinois $83 billion since 1982.

The report estimates the state spends $4.5 billion each year just for the costs of those increased penalties, the same penalties that Emanuel and Raoul want to maintain and enhance.

A few billion dollars would go a very long way toward funding the “comprehensive plan to prevent and respond to gun violence” which “Building a Safe Chicago” calls for – and which our current leadership has failed to deliver.

The report recommends a public health-oriented approach, and the prescription is quite familiar: early childhood education, afterschool programs, school-based violence prevention, mentoring, conflict interruption, mental health services, and prisoner re-entry programs.

There are plenty of such programs out there, but they are not brought up to scale or sustained, the report argues. Meanwhile, “bedrock public services…suffer death by a thousand cuts.”

The report also argues for economic development, police reform, and – a seemingly simple fix to help control the flow of guns – licensing gun shops.

Seriously addressing gun violence will require a reordering of our priorities.  Saying no to SB 1722 would be a good first step.

  • Craig

    Opinion only, no facts.

  • Craig

    “Illinois’ harsh sentencing laws “give permanent felony records and lengthy sentences in adult prisons to a large number of young people who were just about to permanently cease offending,” ”

    And you now this how? What evidence shows this?