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Emanuel, Preckwinkle clash over mandatory minimums

Monday, October 20, 2014
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

The political bullets presumably will quit flying on Nov. 4, at least until the next Election Day. But the real deals never stop flying out of gun barrels on the streets of Chicago.

A special legislative panel has worked throughout this campaign season to do something about that. Headed by state Rep. Michael Zalewski, D-Chicago, its goal is to somehow rejigger our criminal justice system so police, prosecutors and judges focus on the big stuff—like making the streets safe.

I'd like to report that they've finally figured it out and that passage of a bill is likely. I can't. Instead, after hearing person-ally from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle on the matter in recent days, the most I can say is they may have made some progress. But they ain't there yet.

The core of the problem is how to clearly identify, detain or otherwise prevent the bad guys from doing bad things without sparking other woes or infringing on anyone's liberties. That's no easy trick. Some complain about repeat felons who never seem to stay in jail long; others argue that too many young African-American men already are jailed for no good reason; and still others insist that their constitutional right to self- defense cannot be infringed upon with gun-control laws.

The latest idea, pushed not only by Mr. Zalewski but Mr. Emanuel and Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, is to de-emphasize drug prosecutions, a step that might free resources and jail space for gun offenders.

“A shift of philosophy is in order,” Ms. Alvarez told Mr. Zalewski's committee in August, noting that Cook County Jail on an average day holds seven times as many people on drug offenses as on felony weapons counts. “I think we can all agree that taxpayer dollars spent toward removing illegal, violent gun offenders from our streets is money well-spent.”

One idea is to de-emphasize drug prosecutions.

Mr. Emanuel went further, proposing in his testimony to the panel that possession of up to 1 gram of any controlled substance, including heroin and cocaine, be made a misdemeanor. “We don't (want to) put people in prison who need drug treatment.”

But if the mayor and Mr. Zalewski thought that plan might woo minority lawmakers to simultaneously vote for mandatory prison sentences for gun felons, it didn't work.

When I asked Ms. Preckwinkle about the idea, she body-slammed it and went out of her way to blame Mr. Emanuel. “This is the mayor's position, and it's not mine,” she says. “I believe in judicial discretion. I think mandatory sentences are counterproductive and just fill up our jails with people. And I do believe that the substance abuse problems that we have in this country are peculiarly a public health crisis.”

When I later asked Mr. Emanuel if he'd be willing to back a package that dealt only with drug offenses and did not also mandate so many years in prison for a gang member caught with a gun, he ducked. I take that as a no. And even if he said yes, Republicans in the General Assembly, as well as a fair number of downstate Dems, probably wouldn't go for it.

That leaves Mr. Zalewski to figure out how to line up enough of each bloc to win. One idea he's reviewing is to set up a grid of factors, including past conduct, that sometimes would mandate a minimum sentence and at other times not.

Meanwhile, Nina Vinik, who heads the gun violence prevention program at the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, suggests a possible supply-side solution: Follow the lead of California and New York, which require gun shops to be licensed, something that allows for civil and not just criminal prosecution.

That makes sense to me. But I suspect the folks at the Illinois State Rifle Association see it differently, even if purchasers still would be free to buy their next piece in Wisconsin or Indiana, where gun laws are much looser.

Please, someone figure it out.



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