Gun law proposal way over the top
Getting tough on gun law violations is not necessarily getting smart, as legislation pending in Springfield demonstrates.
Chicago holds the unfortunate status as the murder capital of the United States, and the city's political heavyweights — Mayor Rahm Emanuel and House Speaker Michael Madigan — are determined to act as if they are doing something about it.
That's why they're supporting legislation that requires mandatory prison sentences for people convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm, no matter what the circumstances of the offense or their individual backgrounds.
That's the wrong way to go for a variety of reasons. Mandatory prison sentences for gun offenses will sweep up those who don't need to be locked up, put more pressure on the state's already overcrowded systems and drive up costs for taxpayers.
More importantly, they will deny judges and prosecutors the ability to fashion penalties that are appropriate based on the facts of individual cases.
There clearly is a place for mandatory sentences in the criminal justice system, but only for the most violent crimes. Non-violent gun offenses do not come close to meeting that strict standard.
Mayor Emanuel's proposal is typical of public officials who play to the gallery in the wake of public tragedies. That's why Todd Vandermyde, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, has described Emanuel's legislation as a "public relations solution to a crime problem he can't get his hands around."
The normally tough-on-crime NRA has been joined in its opposition to Emanuel's proposal by the John Howard Association, a prison reform group, and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
Let's be clear on one point — the penalties for gun violations in Illinois, which already include incarceration, are tough enough. However, they fall considerably short of being mindless, which is what they would be if this measure becomes law.
Emanuel's proposal, SB 1342, calls for a minimum three-year sentence for all gun violations and would require individuals convicted of that offense to serve a minimum of 85 percent of the sentence compared to 50 percent now.
Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez has argued that it would target repeat offenders. But what the law would really do is target first-time offenders no matter who they are or what their background.
The frustration Chicagoans feel over their alarming murder rate is understandable. The city already has some of the toughest gun laws in the country, and the carnage continues.
But in writing legislation designed to assure that those who need to go to prison do so, Emanuel & Co. will assure that those who do not need to go to prison also will go. How does that serve the public interest?
Fortunately, this legislation has not been well received in Springfield. The bill is pending in the House Judiciary Committee, and the word is that it will have to undergo significant revisions to have a chance of passing.
Fine. That's what the legislative process is about. But if any mandatory sentence is to be added to the state's laws on weapons offenses, it ought to be limited to certain classes of criminal defendants who already have shown a propensity for violence. To do otherwise would be to invite the kind of outcomes that impose disproportionately harsh sentences on undeserving defendants, make a mockery of the criminal justice system and undermine public confidence in the law.