Emanuel bid for gun-crime crackdown runs into roadblocks

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

(c) 2013, Bloomberg News.

CHICAGO — Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's plan to quell his city's gun violence with more jail time is running into Illinois fiscal reality as well as claims that mandatory prison sentences, popular in statehouses for decades, are unaffordable and ineffective deterrents to crime.

The mayor of the third most-populous U.S. city says mandatory three-year prison terms are needed to curb gun crimes in Chicago, which recorded 352 homicides through Oct. 27. New York City, with three times the population, reported 273 during the same period.

The debate comes against a national backdrop of declining inmate populations and a recent call from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to revise sentencing practices. The state Department of Corrections projects the tougher penalties sought by Emanuel would increase the prison population by 3,400 and cost taxpayers $866 million, even as the state faces $100 billion in unfunded pension liabilities and a $9 billion backlog of unpaid bills.

"Some have claimed that this law would be too expensive and that we don't have the jail space to carry out these sentences," Emanuel said Oct. 23 in a budget presentation to the City Council.

"It's not about putting more people in jail," the mayor said. "It is about putting the right people in jail."

Illinois is incarcerating more people and keeping them locked up longer at the same time the U.S. prison population has declined in each of the past three years, according to a recent report from the U.S. Justice Department.

An eight-fold increase in the state's prison population in the past 40 years, to 49,000, has stemmed from a combination of mandatory-minimum sentences, revoking probation for certain offenses, elevating some misdemeanors to felony status, and suspending early releases for good behavior, said David Olson, who teaches criminal justice at Loyola University Chicago.

"The financial impact of all this is really catching up to us now," Olson said. "I don't recall seeing this much of a debate about the policy."

Opponents of Emanuel's mandatory sentencing measure, including the John Howard Association of Illinois, a nonprofit group that advocates for criminal-justice reform, said in a position paper that Chicago should pay the costs of new prison sentences instead of making Illinois taxpayers foot the bill.

The number of homicides in Chicago has dropped 19 percent this year and the city is experiencing roughly half the number of killings as in the mid-1990s. Yet there is a sense of frustration about gun violence that disrupts neighborhoods on the city's South and West sides, even as the homicide rate falls in New York and Los Angeles. Wednesday, a six-year-old boy was among the wounded in shootings that left at least two dead and four other victims with injuries, the Chicago Tribune said.

Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, a former deputy commissioner of the New York department who has said Chicago needs to be more like New York, has calculated that at least 111 shootings or murders this year wouldn't have occurred if the bill were now law, because those involved in the crimes had previous gun violations and would've been locked up. He and Emanuel blame the proliferation of illegal guns in the city, of which more than 5,800 have been confiscated this year.

The issue has divided political allies. Toni Preckwinkle, the president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners who oversees the operation of the county's 10,000-inmate jail, disagrees with Emanuel and opposes the tougher sentences. Both the executives are Democrats.

The jail is almost always the first stop for those charged with serious crimes in the city. The facility is usually filled beyond capacity, requiring Sheriff Tom Dart to send inmates — often by the hundreds — to county facilities around the state.

The average inmate's stay at the jail on Chicago's South Side is 57 days, up from 48 in 2007. Every time a new prisoner enters, the cost to taxpayers rises by $143 a day. The tab for housing all inmates during a single 24-hour period at the razor- wired compound is about $1.4 million.

"There is not a silver bullet solution to the problem," Cara Smith, chief of policy and communications for the Cook County Sheriff's office, said of gun violence in Chicago. "But we're at a point where every strategy possible has to be examined and implemented to deal with this. We don't need any reminders of the daily toll it takes."

The issue is whether the mandatory prison terms sought by Emanuel are the proper response. In an unusually public academic spat, criminal-justice experts at two prominent Chicago universities aired their differences on the subject.

The University of Chicago Crime Lab forecasts mandatory sentences would result in 3,800 fewer crimes each year, including 400 involving serious violence. The costs of incarceration would be more than offset by public safety gains, the lab said in an analysis touted by Emanuel.

A Northwestern University Bluhm Legal Clinic study called the policy "not only costly, but also counterproductive."

In the past, state lawmakers, who have toughened penalties for crimes such as those that involve drugs, guns, kidnapping, sexual assault and burglary, would tend to agree with the mayor.

"What the legislature can do is make laws more punitive," Olson said. "They can't arrest people, they can't try people. It's their way of responding to an electorate that demands that something be done."

The sentencing measure is pending before legislative committees in Springfield, the state capital, where lawmakers are about to end the current session. State Rep. Michael Zalewski, a Chicago Democrat and a sponsor, said he's trying to ease cost concerns and to reassure those who fear that law- abiding citizens with guns will be sent to prison if arrested.

"This thing has gotten sucked into an academic exercise," Zalewski said in an interview.

McCarthy and other law-enforcement officials "don't have the chance to sit in academic institutions and drink coffee and talk," he said. "They have to go out and arrest people."