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City Council divided along racial lines in gun-sentencing debate

Mayor Rahm Emanuel | The Associated Press

Mayor Rahm Emanuel | The Associated Press

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Updated: November 18, 2013 7:46AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has touched a nerve with his demand for a mandatory minimum, three-year sentence for gun crimes with a requirement that defendants serve 85 percent of their sentences.

That much was obvious Wednesday when a City Council bitterly divided along racial lines went on record urging the Illinois General Assembly to impose stiffer sentences for gun crimes.

The resolution talked about truth-in-sentencing. It made no mention of the three-year minimum. But it triggered a debate aldermen were itching to have.

White aldermen were all for the bill championed by Emanuel and Police Supt. Garry McCarthy.

African-American aldermen had such reservations, they threatened to send the resolution back to committee. They argued that mandatory minimum sentences failed miserably in the war on drugs and a similar approach to gun crimes would result in more of the same.

“We have spent countless police hours stopping men, frisking them at a disproportionate rate than our numbers in society and it is causing such a stigma in the community, such a schism that our people don’t trust the police,” said Ald. Howard Brookins (21

st ), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus.

Brookins acknowledged that “something has to be done” about Chicago’s epidemic of gun violence. But, it’s “boots on the ground” — not stiffer sentences.

“We need more police officers. And that has been shown in the 7

th District. They have had the resources in that community and they were able to drive violent crime way down,” he said. Ald. Jason Ervin (28

th ) agreed that the black community has had “Class X felonies driven down our throats” and adding “fuel to that fire” is not the answer.

“We have got to think about the jobs. We’ve got to think about education. We’ve got to think about a lot of different facets other than just locking up black and Hispanic kids,” Ervin said.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27

th ) pointed to the “good kid” who gets a gun to fend off pressure to join a gang and the senior citizen in his ward who shot and killed a home invader.

“There’s a lot of old people in our communities who have guns, unfortunately. Why are they afraid? Because they don’t feel like they’re protected. Is it just because of the violent people in society or is it because they don’t feel like they’re getting all the protection that they deserve or they need,” Burnett said.

“It’s wrong to feel like you have to have a gun. It’s wrong to have an illegal gun. But also, it’s wrong for us if we mandatorily give a person who made the wrong decision three years who may not have ever done anything to anyone. . . . There needs to be some discretion.”

Ald. Harry Osterman (48

th ) urged his colleagues to tell Springfield “what we want” to prevent gun policy from being “dictated by other parts of the state” in a way that causes “bloodshed in our neighborhoods.”

He added, “Gang members that all of you have in your communities, like I have in mine, that don’t care about getting locked up because they know they’re going to be back on the streets in six months. Those are the people [who] would be affected by this.”

Ald. Pat O’Connor (40

th ), the mayor’s floor leader, agreed that the City Council needs to speak with a unified voice to combat a National Rifle Association that has held sway in Illinois for too long.

“This is an issue that is defining, not only the city of Chicago, but cities across the country. And it is defining our city to the rest of the world,” O’Connor said.

“If we back down on trying to get the strongest possible measures that relate to gun violence, we are essentially saying to the rest of the country and the rest of the world, `It’s not our job anymore. It’s not us.’ “


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