Emanuel, cops, prosecutors aim for stiffer sentences for gun possession
BY FRANK MAIN Staff Reporteremail@example.com February 10, 2013 10:26PM
Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez . | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times
Updated: March 12, 2013 6:20AM
The mayor, cops and prosecutors are taking aim at Illinois’ gun possession laws — calling for longer mandatory prison terms and “truth in sentencing.”
Their wish list includes boosting the minimum required sentence for people convicted of gun possession from one year in prison to three years.
They hope to increase the minimum sentence for felons caught with guns from two years to three years.
They also want everyone convicted of felony gun possession to be required to serve 85 percent of their sentences. Now those inmates must complete only half their terms — and sometimes much less after earning “good time” in prison.
Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said the proposed reforms would deter more people from carrying guns illegally and would help curb violence.
“The guys who are doing the shootings would be away from the corners for a longer time,” Alvarez said in an interview.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose office drafted the legislative proposals, is expected to announce them Monday with Alvarez and other officials.
“Criminals continue to escape with minor sentences for possessing and using firearms,” Emanuel said in a prepared statement.
For months, police Supt. Garry McCarthy has proposed lengthening the mandatory sentence for gun possession to three years, pointing to New York City, where he was once a high-ranking cop.
The state of New York passed a 3½-year mandatory minimum sentence for illegal gun possession in 2007. The following year, NFL star Plaxico Burress was arrested after a handgun he was carrying accidentally discharged and shot him.
Burress pleaded guilty to a lesser offense and was hit with a two-year jail term, drawing national attention to New York City as a place that cracks down on illegal gun possession.
Criminologists point to the mandatory gun sentence in New York as one of the reasons for the Big Apple’s continuing decline in violent crime.
Chicago — whose murder tally rose 16 percent to 506 last year — has about three times as many murders per capita as New York. Also, about 85 percent of murders in Chicago involve a gun, compared to about 60 percent in New York.
While the cops and prosecutors in charge of locking up criminals support lengthier sentences, one judge said the General Assembly — and the public — need to think hard before making the gun laws harsher.
“As a taxpayer of this state, I would hope the legislators are cognizant that creating mandatory minimum sentences creates a financial consequence to the state,” said Cook County Judge Nicholas Ford. “A lot of judges bristle at mandatory minimum sentences. It’s not my position to question it. It’s my job to enforce whatever the legislature forwards me.
“But for a person who’s never been convicted of a felony, for a person who’s never committed a violent crime, for a taxpayer who’s never had any problems with the law, I wonder about that,” Ford said.
Alvarez responded that few people without criminal backgrounds are charged with felony gun possession in Cook County.
“You will see that once in a while, but that is when our discretion [as prosecutors] comes into play in charging and in looking at cases once they’re in the system,” she said.
Supporters of mandatory minimum sentences say they also provide a predictable outcome.
Indeed, a Chicago Sun-Times examination found wide disparities in how often Cook County judges put people behind bars for gun possession before mandatory minimum sentences fully took effect in early 2011.
Ford, for example, sentenced 42 defendants for gun possession and sent about 76 percent to prison. About 21 percent received probation and 2 percent went to boot camp. The length of his average prison sentence was almost two and a half years.
Judge Michael Brown, meanwhile, sentenced 45 defendants. About half went to prison, 23 percent received community service, 18 percent probation and 5 percent boot camp. But the length of his average prison sentence was more than three years.
Overall, Cook County judges sent nearly three-quarters of such defendants to prison for an average sentence of almost two and a half years. About 14 percent got probation, 6 percent boot camp and 4 percent community service.
The newspaper studied 2011 sentencing outcomes in felony gun possession cases that didn’t include other types of crimes.
Many of those cases involved 2010 arrests, which didn’t apply to the mandatory minimum sentences that took effect in 2011.
A separate law that took effect in late 2009 requires a minimum sentence of three years for gang members convicted of carrying a loaded gun.
The Sun-Times analysis found that judges sometimes sentenced defendants to Cook County boot camp — a four-month program with eight additional months of strict supervision.
Ford called boot camp a “really solid disposition” for younger defendants without a felony record or violent background.
But Alvarez said she doesn’t think judges should have the option to sentence such defendants to boot camp.
“It’s not ‘pen’ time,” she said. “I think the law is clear that they should not be giving boot camp, but judges see it a different way.”
Alvarez said she’s considering discussing the matter with Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans and “seeing if there’s something we need to change legislatively — or litigate it.”
As Alvarez and other politicians pursue tougher gun laws, one man convicted of illegal gun possession surprisingly said they’re right.
Matthew Munoz, 24, was arrested in 2011 after he and his pals got into a squabble with rival gang members on the South Side.
No shots were fired and they drove their separate ways. But someone called the police and officers found a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun in the car Munoz was riding in.
“It was a nice gun. It wasn’t rusty. It was well taken care of,” he said in an interview, adding that he bought it on the street.
Munoz was eligible for probation because his crime happened in 2010, before the one-year mandatory minimum took effect. He was sentenced to two years’ probation, but after one year he messed up when he tried to foil a drug test.
Munoz was sent to prison. But because he got credit for time he spent in the Cook County Jail, he said he spent only one day at Stateville Correctional Center.
“It’s called ‘dress in and dress out,’ ” he said.
Munoz is now on parole, which he vows to complete successfully. He plans to go to school and get a job.
“Some people need prison to learn their lesson,” Munoz said. “I wish I got sent to prison a long time ago. I kept getting probation for this and that. . . . Chicago is getting out of control with the gang violence. They should send those guys to prison — even guys like me.”