Updated: April 11, 2013 6:51AM
If only Illinois’ felony gun laws had been tougher, Hadiya Pendleton would be alive today.
That argument will be pushed hard this week at a Springfield hearing of a legislative committee considering a bill that would increase the mandatory minimum sentence for gun crimes to three years from one.
It is a powerful argument. We all would love to turn back the clock and save the life of 15-year-old Hadiya, whose death in a South Side park on Jan. 29 shook the city.
But House Bill 2265, pushed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, is a bad idea.
The proposed longer mandatory sentence would do little or nothing to curb Chicago’s violence. It would tie the hands of experienced judges who must be allowed to make common-sense exceptions to the rule. And the current law, had it been enforced properly, also could have kept Hadiya’s accused killer in prison and far from Hadiya on that fateful day.
The suspect, Michael Ward, had been convicted of the aggravated unlawful use of a weapon — he was picked up with a loaded gun — and was on probation at the time he allegedly shot Hadiya. But Ward had already been arrested three times for violating the terms of his parole, including two arrests for breaking into cars. Had all three of those parole violations been reported to prosecutors, as they should have been, Ward likely would have been back in prison on that day.
In a Feb. 15 op-ed in the Sun-Times, Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy attempted to offer City Hall’s best argument in favor of the longer mandatory sentence, which also would require that offenders serve at least 85 percent of the sentence. In his op-ed, one of several pieces the Sun-Times solicited on this issue, McCarthy cited the examples of two men who had been released from prison after serving a year or less on gun charges and then turned around and shot people. And he argued that such a law had worked in New York.
“After a similar mandatory minimum law was enacted in New York,” McCarthy wrote, “offenders began serving their full sentences while the murder rate and prison population fell by double digits.”
But as others have since pointed out in the Sun-Times, New York’s murder rate had been dropping for 17 years before its new mandatory minimum kicked in.
Julie Stewart, president of Washington-based FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums) noted in a Feb. 17 op-ed that Chicago’s murder rate actually jumped 16 percent after Illinois imposed its current one-year mandatory minimum in 2011.
“It would be as ridiculous to attribute that rise in homicides to the mandatory sentencing law,” Stewart wrote, “as it would be to pretend another mandatory law will reduce it.”
Retired Cook County Judge Daniel M. Locallo, who dispatched thousands of bad guys to prison in his career, says judges generally loathe mandatory minimums not because they are soft on crime but because no two defendants are the same. Judges must use discretion.
Adding to the problem, as Locallo wrote in a Feb. 23 op-ed, Alvarez has ordered her prosecutors to recommend jail time in every aggravated unlawful use of a weapon case.
“As a consequence,” Locallo wrote, “no assistant state’s attorney will consider the age of a defendant, the circumstances of the offense, the criminal background of the defendant, the occupation of the defendants, and the hardship such a prison sentence would be on their dependents in determining a recommendation to judges.”
Illinois’ prison system is already overcrowded, according to the John Howard Association. Tripling mandatory gun crime sentences would burden the system further, John Maki, president of the prison watchdog group, wrote in an op-ed on Saturday, and cost taxpayers “hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Rushing through a law as ill-conceived as HB 2265 in the emotional wake of Hadiya Pendleton’s death does not honor her memory or make our children safer.
If only it were that easy.
To read the four op-eds cited in this editorial, go to sun-times.com.