News Column

Mayor Emanuel Pushes for Stiffer Gun Sentences

Feb 11, 2013

John Byrne and Ray Long

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez want those caught carrying loaded, illegal weapons to get more prison time and to serve nearly their entire sentence under the theory that taking gun criminals off the street before they shoot could help reduce Chicago's rising homicide rate.

But first the two have to get state lawmakers to approve the plan. Then prosecutors will have to use the new tools, and judges will have to honor the new standards.

The measure, pushed for by Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, is based in large part on New York gun laws requiring more time behind bars for unlawful use of a weapon and other gun crimes.

"Three-year minimum for various gun offenses, truth in sentencing. It has worked as part of a strategy in reducing gun violence in their city," Emanuel said at a news conference at the Austin district station.

Emanuel's proposal to toughen gun possession sentences came hours before two men were charged with first-degree murder in the high-profile shooting of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton. One of those charged, Michael Ward, is on probation after pleading guilty last year to aggravated unlawful use of a weapon, according to court records. If the proposal unveiled Monday were Illinois law, Ward could have been behind bars Jan. 29, when Hadiya was killed.

With political pressure heightened, Emanuel took the unusual step of calling Hadiya's family this week to let them know police were questioning suspects. It's not rare for Emanuel to call the family of crime victims, but typically it's police professionals who keep the family looped in on an investigation's progress.

"I have called Cleo and Nate either every night or almost every night, when I have nothing to say except for, 'I'm thinking of you and you're in my prayers.' So when we had some information, I informed them," Emanuel said of his decision to personally tell the Pendletons about the possible break in the case.

Emanuel's proposal would increase the mandatory jail time for certain cases of aggravated unlawful use of a weapon from one year to three years. It also would bump the sentence for felons caught with guns from two years to three years. Either conviction would require the defendant to serve 85 percent of the sentence, up from 50 percent or less under current law.

In late 2006, New York put in place a mandatory 3{-year sentence for anyone convicted of illegally carrying a loaded gun, up from one year. Then New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg rolled out a public awareness campaign with the slogan "Guns Prison."

But homicides were falling in New York City before the law took effect, a trend that continued afterward. City officials credit the increased minimum sentence as one of the reasons for that drop.

Such laws have to be used by prosecutors and judges. Bloomberg's office found that in 2011, fewer than half the people arrested for illegal possession of a loaded gun in New York City got a state prison sentence, the New York Times reported last month. Criminal history can affect the length of a sentence, said Janine Kava, spokeswoman for New York state's division of criminal justice services.

Alvarez said that until lawmakers pass the package in Illinois, she will tell Cook prosecutors to seek the maximum sentences under current law for known gang members and other criminals convicted of gun possession charges. She also acknowledged that lawyers in her office often seek the stiffest sentences they can, with judges only sometimes going along with the requests. Judges also can convict defendants of different charges that carry lighter sentences.

While the call by Emanuel and Gov. Pat Quinn for an assault weapons ban faces a difficult road, the idea of getting tough on gun criminals typically is greeted more warmly by gun rights groups.

"If it's repeat offenders, absolutely," penalties can be tougher, said Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, who is pushing a bill to allow concealed carry of guns. "A gun doesn't go off by itself. ... We've got to be tougher on them."

But Phelps said he would be concerned about the ramifications of longer prison sentences if they would apply to first-time offenders.





Distributed by MCT Information Services



Source: Copyright 2013 Chicago Tribune


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