Get-tough gun bill not answer
Political grandstanding on crime issues may attract votes, but it's the wrong way to legislate.
Illinois legislators get considerable grief, including some from The News-Gazette, about their failure to act on important issues.
But inaction is not always a bad thing. Sometimes, it's the best thing.
Last week, legislators abruptly adjourned their fall veto session, leaving an ill-advised legislative proposal on illegal gun possession in limbo and its legislative sponsor sputtering about parliamentary tricks to delay a debate and vote.
We've written previously about Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's proposal to get tough on gun violence in his city by getting tough on illegal gun possession. But Emanuel's bill mandating prison sentences for individuals found in illegal possession of a firearm is not the answer.
It targets first-time offenders with a mandatory three-year prison sentence no matter what the circumstances, and that makes no sense. Just as individuals vary in character and background, gun violations cover a range of circumstances.
By stripping judges of the ability to exercise their discretion in fashioning an appropriate sentence, the legislation assured that people who do not need to be incarcerated for purposes of punishment or public protection would be incarcerated regardless.
Then there's the difficulty and cost of incarcerating more inmates in state prisons that already are filled to the rafters. Mandatory sentences have serious and costly consequences in difficult-to-manage correctional facilities.
The bill's sponsor, Chicago Democratic state Rep. Mike Zalewski, agreed to modifications in the bill, reducing the mandated penalty for a first-time offender from three years to one. The penalty would be applied when the individual is carrying a loaded gun or has ammunition nearby without a valid firearm owner's identification card. Current law already requires a one-year penalty if an individual has a loaded gun with no FOID card, and that's harsh enough.
In a Chicago Tribune commentary this week, Zalewski wrote that his goal is to pass legislation that "sends the clear-cut message that those using guns to terrorize our streets will be caught, and they will pay a serious price behind bars."
Those who actually terrorize the public will find no sympathy here. But mere possession of an illegal firearm, no matter the circumstances, is not terrorism.
So what's up with this bill?
Despite having the toughest gun laws in the country, Chicago has a serious gun-violence problem. It's the murder capital of the United States, and Emanuel is trying to ease the political problem by crafting a political solution that envelops not just Chicago, but all of Illinois.
The National Rifle Association opposed the first version of Zalewski's bill, but has agreed to back the watered-down version. Black and Hispanic legislators, however, still vehemently object to the bill, and, working with House Speaker Michael Madigan, they used a parliamentary maneuver on the last day of the veto session to delay consideration of it. Then Madigan, suddenly and without warning, entertained a motion to adjourn.
For now at least, the bill is on hold, awaiting action in December or early in 2014.
Political expediency aside, this legislation is unnecessary. With the exception of serious drug crimes, there's no reason to mandate prison sentences for nonviolent, first-time offenders. If the facts justify a prison sentence, a sentencing judge can order one. If the facts do not, there's no reason to strip the judge of the power to fashion a penalty short of prison.
Because of their sledgehammer effect, mandatory prison sentences ought to be limited to relatively few extremely serious criminal offenses. Inaction on this legislation is fine.