Updated: April 10, 2013 6:10AM
Illinois must do something about Chicago’s epidemic of gun violence, but Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s current proposal to increase to three years from one the mandatory minimum prison sentence for unlawful use of a weapon is not the answer.
Two arguments support Emanuel’s proposal. The first is that the threat of slightly longer prison sentences will deter people from unlawfully carrying guns and using them in shootings.
Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy has claimed that similar changes in 2006 led to New York City’s recent decline in murders. However, New York City’s murder rate started dropping long before penalties were increased, falling by almost 75 percent between 1990 and 2000. More generally, there is no conclusive evidence that suggests longer prison sentences decrease the number of gun assaults.
Furthermore, Illinois’ current law already provides lengthy prison time for gun offenses, including for unlawful use of a weapon. Adding another year or two to a prison sentence is unlikely to deter people already inclined to unlawfully carry a gun.
The second argument in support of Emanuel’s proposal is that incarceration will control gun violence by incapacitating people who might become shooters.
The weakness of that argument is that the long-term consequences of increasing Illinois’ prison population will overwhelm any short-term benefits from taking offenders off the streets for a few extra years.
Illinois already has one of the most crowded prison systems in the country, with more than 49,000 inmates in a system designed for 33,000. These numbers create dangerous conditions for inmates and staff. Such conditions put Illinois at risk for the kind of litigation that led the U.S. Supreme Court to declare that California’s prison system was unconstitutionally overcrowded.
Based on a preliminary analysis, the non-partisan Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council estimates that Emanuel’s proposal will increase Illinois’ prison population by several thousand inmates and cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. This estimate does not include the likely costs of opening new prisons to house these inmates or paying staff benefits, which may push the total over $1 billion.
Illinois’ prison system cannot absorb the thousands of inmates Emanuel’s proposal would send its way, and Illinois’ taxpayers cannot afford the significant added costs.
If it becomes law, Emanuel’s proposal will pack more people into an overcrowded system only to return them to their communities a couple of years later, in all likelihood more dangerous than they were before.
John Maki is executive director of the Chicago-based John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group.