Smart on Crime

“It’s ill-advised to do reactionary law-making…There’s a string of [criminal] occurrences and we say we need to enhance penalties on this crime or some other one…we do it based on gut and a press conference. We need to look at recidivism, deterrence, punishment, all [those] thing[s] you’re supposed to consider.”

Illinois State Senator Kwame Raoul made this statement on November 6, 2013 about SB 1342. Community Renewal Society agrees and opposes any legislation that increases mandatory prison sentences. This bill takes a piecemeal approach to gun violence.

Gun violence is destroying our communities. Too many lives are being lost. Too much money is being spent on “tough on crime” laws and policies that don’t work. We urge our representatives in the Illinois legislature to promote “smart on crime” solutions and to stop spending our money on young people needlessly sentenced too young and too harshly.

Mandatory minimum sentences will not reduce rates of gun violence in Chicago. Supporters of mandatory minimum sentences argue that a criminal in prison is one less criminal on the streets. However, mandatory minimums do not provide communities with a long-term plan for preventing crime and violence. Instead, they increase the likelihood of recidivism and contribute to making some prisoners even more dangerous and unemployable upon release.

Long-term solutions are necessary. A disproportionate number of young people are affected by mandatory minimums. A U.S. Sentencing Commission report reveals that parties involved in the sentencing process are punished more harshly than necessary as a result of mandatory minimum sentences. The early incarceration of young people will increase rates of crime and violence because “incarcerating younger, lower-level prisoners with older and more violence offenders turns prisons into ‘crime schools’” according to a report published by the Northwestern Law Bluhm Legal Clinic.

There are alternatives to mandatory minimums that work. By providing our youth with jobs and after-school activities, and by employing “focused policing,” we can reduce violence in our communities. One Summer Plus is a promising crime reduction program in Chicago. It provides young people in high-violence neighborhoods with part-time jobs for seven weeks in the summer. The University of Chicago Crime Lab found that violent crime arrests were cut in half during the 2012 session.

If SB 1342 passes, a person who carries an unloaded firearm in public (with ammunition accessible) without a valid FOID (Firearms Owner Identification) card would be automatically charged with Aggravated Unlawful Use of a Weapon. If convicted, a person with no previous record would be required to serve eighty-five percent of a one-year prison sentence. The proposed law does not put a cap on the age or type of felony that subjects people to mandatory minimum sentences. People with minor drug possession and retail theft convictions will be viewed the same as “career violent criminals.”

We are expecting Governor Quinn to call a special session of the Illinois Legislature in early December, right after Thanksgiving. There is a strong chance that the General Assembly will vote on SB 1342 during this session.

We cannot let SB 1342 pass. An investigation conducted by the Chicago Reporter revealed that if mandatory minimums for illegal gun possessions had been in place between 2000 and 2011, “Illinois taxpayers would have been responsible for, at a minimum, more than $760 million in additional incarceration costs related to gun possession convictions….” There are also human costs of incarceration. A person who serves a mandatory sentence returns to society a marked person faced with barriers to finding a job, a stable home, or ongoing mental health services, if needed.

We need you to call or e-mail your legislators NOW and urge them to vote AGAINST SB 1342. Over three hundred organizations and individuals have already recorded their opposition to this bill and numerous editorials have been published. Tell our legislators that being “smart” rather than “tough” on crime will reduce violence in Chicago. Act NOW.

Nisreen Hasib is a third-year law student at Northwestern University School of Law. She currently interns at the Community Renewal Society as part of her work for the Community Lawyering class at Northwestern.

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