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Len Bias’ death is why we shouldn’t rush to judgment on gun laws

JUNE 1986:  Len Bias #1 draft pick BostCeltics pumps his fist after he was selected second over all June

JUNE 1986: Len Bias #1 draft pick of the Boston Celtics pumps his fist after he was selected second over all in the June 1986 NBA draft. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice and Credit: Copyright 2001 NBAE (Photo By: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)

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Updated: March 18, 2013 6:41AM

What is the right response to Hadiya Pendelton’s tragic killing last month allegedly at the hands of a young man on probation for a gun conviction?

The visceral response is to lock him up, throw away the key and install tough mandatory gun sentences that prevent judges from ever giving defendants probation.

This emotional reaction makes perfect sense — until you consider why legislating by anecdote makes terrible policy.

Twenty-seven years ago, a young African-American basketball star named Len Bias was drafted by the Boston Celtics, went out to celebrate, overdosed on cocaine and died. Bias’s death was the tipping point for lawmakers who had been struggling to deal with what was being called the crack epidemic. Within two months, Congress hastily adopted new laws to impose stiff prison sentences on crack cocaine possession and selling. There were no hearings or debates. No expert testimony was solicited, no alternatives were considered. The law hurtled through Congress driven by the raw emotion of losing such a promising young man and “fixing” the growing crack cocaine problem.

Len Bias’s death did not mark the first or last time lawmakers seized on a high-profile crime to rush through an ill-considered legislative response, but it is worth recalling as Chicago and Illinois leaders consider new gun laws. One family’s unspeakable tragedy was used to create misery for tens of thousands of others families. As President Barack Obama noted during the 2008 campaign, the indefensible crack penalties “disproportionately filled our prisons with young black and Latino drug users.” In 2010, when the crack law’s full impact could no longer be denied, Congress passed reform legislation that Obama signed into law.

The lesson for Illinois state leaders is obvious. All of us want to figure out how we can prevent the bright lights of the next generation, like Hadiya Pendleton, from falling victim to senseless gun violence. We all want violent criminals to be sent away where they cannot harm our children and communities. But introducing new mandatory gun sentences is not the answer.

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez says that if the new mandatory minimum gun law she and Mayor Rahm Emanuel are proposing had been in effect, Hayida Pendleton would be alive today. That’s a bold statement meant to quiet anyone who disagrees. Yet it’s not clear that a new law was needed to keep the alleged shooter, Michael Ward, behind bars. Tougher enforcement of current laws should have kept him there. After all, he was on probation at the time he allegedly shot Hayida and had been arrested three times for violating the terms of his probation, including two arrests for car break-ins. Not one of these violations was reported to the prosecutor, a failure the acting chief probation officer called “a serious lapse.”

To support their new proposal, Mayor Emanuel, Chicago Police Chief Garry McCarthy and others point to the murder rate in New York, which has dropped to its lowest rate since 1963, and attribute it to the mandatory minimums championed by New York City Michael Bloomberg in 2007. What they do not say is that the murder rate had dropped for 17 years before that law took effect and already was at its lowest rate since 1963. Yes, the rate dipped even further, but it’s not clear how much credit Bloomberg’s mandatory minimums deserve. New York police officials credit other factors, such as their “hot spot” enforcement strategy. Looking elsewhere, how does one explain the historic drop in violent crime in cities such as Los Angeles and Houston where no new mandatory sentences were enacted?

Chicago’s own track record demonstrates the harm in reading too much into crime statistics. The state’s current one-year mandatory minimum for illegal gun possession was implemented in 2011. The next year, city homicides rose more than 16 percent. It would be as ridiculous to attribute that rise in homicides to the mandatory sentencing law as it would be to pretend another mandatory law will reduce it.

Illinois leaders should not make the same mistake Congress did after Len Bias died. Before rushing to pass a new mandatory sentencing law for guns, a law that is bound to ensnare the less culpable and create future injustices, they should take the time to consider whether other alternatives, including stricter enforcement of current laws, would be wiser.

Julie Stewart is founder and president of FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to achieve individualized and proportionate federal and state sentencing laws. Visit for more information.

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