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Hadiya’s death shows need for new gun laws, top prosecutor says

Cook County State's Attorney AnitAlvarez speaks after bond hearing for Michael Ward 18 Kenneth Williams 20 charged murder HadiyPendletCook County

Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez speaks after the bond hearing for Michael Ward, 18, and Kenneth Williams, 20, charged in the murder of Hadiya Pendleton, at the Cook County Criminal Courts Building in Chicago, Ill., on Tuesday, February 12, 2013. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 14, 2013 6:35AM

Hadiya Pendleton would be alive today if proposed gun sentencing reforms were in place a year ago, when her alleged killer pleaded guilty to a weapon offense, Cook County’s top prosecutor said Tuesday.

Michael Ward, 18, received probation in January 2012 for aggravated unlawful use of a weapon. He was still on probation for the felony gun possession offense when he allegedly shot Hadiya to death on Jan. 29.

Ward would have been behind bars at the time of her slaying if he had been sentenced under a proposed three-year mandatory minimum sentence for aggravated unlawful use of a weapon, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said.

“The murder would not have been committed because he would have been in prison — and she would still be alive,” Alvarez said.

Alvarez is a supporter of legislation that Mayor Rahm Emanuel plans to introduce in the General Assembly to increase the mandatory minimum sentence for aggravated unlawful use of a weapon from one year to three years and require those inmates to serve 85 percent of their sentences.

She also would like the General Assembly to close a loophole in the law, which exempts 17-year-olds from the current mandatory minimum sentence of one year in prison.

Ward was 17 when he was charged with aggravated unlawful use of a weapon on Oct. 23, 2011. That’s why he wasn’t sentenced to a one-year mandatory sentence, which would have required him to serve only six months behind bars.

In that case, Ward admitted he ran from officers investigating a 911 call of a person with a gun in 3700 block of South Langley. He tossed a loaded .38-caliber handgun that he told police he needed for protection from rival gang members.

He pleaded guilty on Jan. 5, 2012, and Judge Nicholas Ford sentenced him to two years’ probation. A Chicago Sun-Times analysis of more than 40 sentences Ford handed down for gun possession in 2011 showed he sent 76 percent of the defendants to prison and 21 percent received probation.

After Ward was sentenced to probation, he was arrested three separate times on misdemeanor charges.

His probation officer failed to report two of those arrests to prosecutors, who could have sought to send Ward to prison for probation violations.

Ward was arrested last year for two car break-ins and trespassing. All the charges were later dismissed.

Jesus Reyes, acting chief probation officer for Cook County, said his office is investigating why two of the arrests weren’t reported to prosecutors.

Reyes said the failure to report the arrests to prosecutors was a serious lapse. But he doesn’t think those arrests would have resulted in Ward going to prison for a probation violation.

“I don’t think it’s the sort of thing that would have placed him in prison at all — jail, possibly — and if so, very briefly,” Reyes said. “We are living in a time when the Illinois Department of Corrections is overcrowded, as well as the Cook County Department of Corrections. Those things are reserved for times when someone is shot or something more serious happened.”

But Roseanna Ander, executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, said she thinks more people should go to prison for probation violations — not only to deter crime, but to keep violent criminals off the street.

“The way the system is working now it appears to be teaching people not to take the threat of sanctions seriously,” she said.

Ward’s case points to the need for reform, Alvarez added.

“Our office asked for pen [penitentiary] time, as we do on these gun cases,” she said. “The judge did have the option for giving him probation, which he did. But what we want to do with our new legislation is to fix that, so that we are, in fact, holding these people responsible.”

Contributing: Rummana Hussain

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