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In short run, mayor's gun-bill strategy unlikely to backfire

Published: Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013 10:18 a.m. CDT

CHICAGO (MCT) - Rahm Emanuel's push for tougher sentences for illegal gun possession continues the tactical tradition of Chicago mayors looking to Springfield to help solve -- or shift blame for -- the city's continued violent crime problem.

State lawmakers routinely paid little notice to former Mayor Richard Daley's annual requests for tougher firearms laws, especially by the end of his tenure. While Emanuel's rhetoric may be even louder, his effort is obstructed by a variety of factors: incarceration costs, geography, race, conflicting academic studies and the unknown effects of a new Illinois law allowing qualified gun owners to carry firearms in public.

The legislature has only one more week scheduled this year, but discussions continue on Emanuel's plan for mandatory minimum of three years in prison for illegal gun possession and a requirement that 85 percent of the sentence to be served.

No matter how negotiations turn out, the politically mindful Emanuel is in a position to gain at least a short-term victory. If lawmakers fail to act, Emanuel can blame the General Assembly for the city's struggles in dealing with violent gun crimes. Should lawmakers reach a deal, the mayor can claim an important crime-fighting tool, though its actual effectiveness won't be known for years.

"All of us are fully aware of that. That is what we all talk about," state Rep. Ken Dunkin, D-Chicago, said of the political realities behind Emanuel's gun-sentencing effort. The legislature's black caucus is opposed to the mayor's proposal as offered, however.

"We are 100 percent against the violent criminals who plague our communities," Dunkin said. "We don't want to see these urban terrorists. We detest them like a cancer ... and we want them out of our community quick, fast and in a hurry. Locked up and in jail. But a mandatory minimum sentence across the board would have too many unintended consequences for nonviolent people."

For Dunkin and other black lawmakers, the issue of gun violence is outweighed by a deep-seated mistrust of prosecutors using their discretion to pursue cases requiring automatic prison sentences rather than allowing judges to have some ultimate leeway. The city's African-American community has seen high incarceration rates as well as a return of released offenders from prison unable to find employment, so black lawmakers traditionally support tougher regulations and restrictions on the availability of firearms. That approach has been gutted by the state's new concealed carry law that prohibits larger cities including Chicago from enacting their own gun laws.

"Even though we have mandatory sentencing, everybody doesn't get the same mandatory sentencing," said state Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago. Such a proposal "absolutely does hurt the African-American community more than other communities," said Flowers, whose comments reflect the rift that has developed between Emanuel and black voters.

Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, who has served as the chief legislative negotiator for gun-rights advocates, also shares concerns about his Downstate constituents making simple mistakes with gun possession and ending up with a mandatory prison sentence in Cook County, particularly with the advent of the new concealed carry law.

"There's going to be problems and people making mistakes. I do not want those people, who have made a mistake, never committed a crime, to go to prison," said Phelps, who readily acknowledges the difference in gun culture from rural Illinois to urban streets.

Emanuel has sought to assuage those concerns, saying last week during his budget speech that his effort is "not about putting more people in jail. It's about putting the right people in jail." While the mayor said he was opposed to filling prisons with nonviolent offenders, "it also makes no sense to use that as an excuse for not getting tough with gun-criminals."

The mayor's proposal also has been met with resistance from Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who has long opposed mandatory minimum sentencing. Preckwinkle also faces the task of trying to manage the costs of an overcrowded county jail that includes people awaiting trial.

There also are cost concerns in Springfield, where a cash-strapped state government would be forced to foot the bill. The Illinois Department of Corrections has estimated that over 10 years the Emanuel proposal would result in an additional 3,860 inmates, requiring more than $700 million in new operating costs and $263 million in building new prison cells.

There's also been a raft of conflicting research over what the mayor wants. Both the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University law school and the prison watchdog John Howard Association contend research has long demonstrated that mandatory minimum sentences do not reduce gun violence and say the answer is more police.

On the other side is the University of Chicago Crime Lab, which said its analysis of Emanuel's proposal found that the concept of mandatory minimum sentences would have a deterrent effect and that the costs of incarceration would be outweighed by savings from reducing the societal costs of gun-related violence.

For his part, Emanuel has used public appearances in support of his plan to cast aside research in favor of emotion, contending cost-benefit analyses provide little comfort to the victims of gun violence. His police superintendent, Garry McCarthy, takes it even a step further.

"We're talking about saving lives. We're talking about stopping people from getting murdered. And people are assigning a dollars-and-cents formula onto this? C'mon what's going on here?" McCarthy said to reporters last week in pitching Emanuel's plan. "You know some of the folks who are doing that research probably couldn't find Englewood on a map."

McCarthy's hard-line sell and lack of sympathy for law-abiding people who mistakenly might get caught in the mandatory minimum sentencing net have not gone unnoticed.

"It has been brought up what he said," said Phelps, who added that the police superintendent's remarks weren't helpful to efforts to negotiate a compromise.

(c)2013 the Chicago Tribune Distributed by MCT Information Services

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