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Illinois House Committee Approves Tougher Sentences For Repeat Gun Offenders

State of Illinois

By a vote of 10-3, an Illinois House committee has approved a controversial bill that would imprison repeat gun offenders for up to 14 years.

Opponents argue there’s no evidence the proposal would do anything to reduce gun violence.

With less than a week before the end of this year’s legislative session, Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson testified before the House Judiciary-Criminal Law Committee in a marathon hearing.

For nearly three hours, state representatives argued the merits of imposing longer sentences on people caught with illegal guns more than once. They also debated whether that measure will reduce gun violence that's drawn international attention to Chicago.

“We have got to do something,” Johnson said. “We cannot leave from here and leave this undone. If we think 768 people getting murdered in the city of Chicago is OK, then OK, let’s not do anything.” 

State Rep. Juliana Stratton, D-Chicago, said she doubted the proposed bill would be a solution to the city’s gun violence. Instead, she argued for a data-driven response that would invest in programs for youth and bring more jobs to the neighborhoods most affected by gun violence.

“I don’t think anyone wants to just do something for the sake of saying that we did something,” Stratton said. “I think what we are looking for is to get to the solutions that are actually going to solve the problem of too many — whether it’s one or whether it’s 768 — too many people getting shot and killed in Chicago.”

The issue has polarized African-American state lawmakers for years. They argue the state’s prison system already is overcrowded with a majority of black and Latino inmates. Furthermore, they claim legislation demanding longer prison sentences would do nothing to drop those prison population numbers.

Committee Chairman Elgie Sims, D-Chicago, said the issue fuels cynicism from African-American lawmakers, who believe the bill is meant to target minorities who already make up significant portions of the prison population. 

“I don’t want anyone to believe that [the bill], if it becomes law, is the panacea to address gun violence in the city of Chicago,” Sims said. "It is not, and it will not solve all ills. It is a piece of the puzzle. We have to make sure we are investing in communities."

Despite this opposition, the bill enjoys the rare support of both Gov. Bruce Rauner and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. One of Rauner’s chief allies in the legislature, House Republican Leader Jim Durkin is the main sponsor of the bill. Durkin tried to win over some holdouts through recent changes he made to the bill, which include adding diversion programs for young, first-time gun offenders. Durkin also added a five-year sunset so lawmakers can re-evaluate whether the longer prison sentences help reduce gun violence.

But State Rep. Rita Mayfield, D-Waukegan, accused Durkin and his fellow Republicans of traditionally not supporting programs meant to help inmates once they get out of prison.

“You will rubber stamp everything that puts an individual in prison,” Mayfield said, "but you won’t do one thing to help them when they get out. That’s a problem."

Similar attempts to pass stricter prison sentences for gun offenders have stalled in the past. Downstate representatives have previously raised concerns that the policy would target legal gun owners who didn’t properly store their firearms. 

But, while the National Rifle Association has opposed similar bills in the past, it is not taking a position on this year’s proposal. And the concerns traditionally raised by downstate lawmakers didn’t come up at Thursday’s hearing, as Republicans and downstate representatives voted to move the bill along for a vote before the full House of Representatives.

“I’m not about head counts,” Durkin said. “I’m not about locking up and warehousing people. I’m about finding the truth and bringing justice and closure to victims of violent crime.”

The measure still needs approval from the full House.

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