Bipartisan push in Illinois legislature would increase sentencing for repeat gun offenders

In an effort to curb gun violence in Chicago, the Illinois House on Monday approved a bill that would boost sentencing requirements for repeat gun offenders.

Backed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, Senate Bill 1722 would increase the sentencing range to between seven and 14 years for individuals with previous qualifying convictions who are convicted of gun crimes.

Current Illinois law calls for a sentencing range of three to 14 years. According to the bill, if a judge chooses not to follow the new sentencing guidelines, he or she would have to explain why.

“The question is … whether (repeat offenders) are incapacitated long enough to create a breather for some neighborhoods that are just ravaged by gun violence,” said State Sen. Kwame Raoul, the Chicago Democrat who worked with Superintendent Johnson to draft and introduce the legislation. A version of the bill passed his chamber in early April.

For Johnson, the proposal is about targeting the 1,500 people on his “strategic subject list” — the offenders responsible for most of the violence.

“These (repeat gun) offenders are cycled through the criminal justice system with a severe lack of accountability for the crimes that they commit,” said Johnson before a House committee last week. “They are released back to the streets so quickly that they see no reason to change their behavior, and the cycle of violence just continues in our city.”

But critics in the General Assembly, including the Black Caucus, say the increased sentencing guidelines would disproportionately affect minorities without addressing the root causes of violence in the Windy City.

House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, a suburban Republican and former Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney, is sponsoring the bill in the House. He tried to address that criticism by proposing an amendment that sets up an 18-24 month diversion program for young, first time gun offenders. Instead of serving time in prison, offenders would attend classes, work towards finishing high school or vocational training programs, find a job, and meet other requirements in an effort to provide a path toward opportunity, and away from crime.

The amendment also adds a sunset provision, which would put an end to the law after five years. That gives lawmakers the chance to determine whether the law is working, and decide whether to renew it.

During a contentious two hour debate in the House on Monday, Durkin fielded questions and defended the bill. Several Democrats urged no votes.

“Lengthening people’s sentences simply does not stop them from committing crimes,” said state Rep. Will Guzzardi, another Chicago Democrat. “I want to do something that works … we know that investing in communities is the solution, not locking more people up.”

Another Democratic representative pointed out how most of the people pulling the trigger are never arrested. According to a January report from the University of Chicago Crime Lab, at least one person was arrested in connection with 189 homicide incidents in 2016, a year when there were 726 total homicide incidents. That’s a 26 percent clearance rate. For shootings, there was a five percent clearance rate last year.

“I think that goes to the fact that we need more police officers … in Chicago,” Durkin said. “More police officers, more assistance from the federal government — from the ATF, FBI, and also with the county.”

Durkin noted that Emanuel plans to hire several hundred more officers in the coming years. After hearing from several representatives, he made his final plea.

“Men and women who are law abiding citizens who raise families…they want their streets taken back. The mayor of Chicago wants to take back his streets, and so does the superintendent of the Chicago Police Department,” he said. “This is a start of trying to do something to stop this plague of violence, which we pick up and read on a daily basis in the newspapers. It’s a good bill. I ask for your support.”

The measure passed the House 70-41. A Senate committee approved the House amendment on Tuesday, and the full Senate is expected to vote on the measure Wednesday – the same day lawmakers are scheduled to adjourn.