News Local/State

State Committee Approves Tougher Sentences For Repeat Gun Offenders

File: The Illinois Capitol Building in Springfield.

File: The Illinois Capitol Building in Springfield. Tony Arnold/WBEZ

Chicago’s police superintendent on Thursday made his second trip this year to the Illinois statehouse to advocate for a controversial bill that would imprison repeat gun offenders for up to 14 years. 

A House panel approved the bill by a vote of 10-3, with opponents arguing there’s no evidence the proposal will do anything to reduce the city’s gun violence.

With less than a week before the end of this year’s legislative session, Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson testified before the House Judiciary-Criminal Law Committee in a marathon hearing about the bill. For nearly three hours, state representatives argued the merits of imposing longer sentences on people caught with illegal guns more than once — and whether that will reduce the gun violence that has 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 more 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 for years polarized African-American state lawmakers, who argue the state’s prison system is already overcrowded with a majority of black and Latino inmates. Legislation demanding longer prison sentences would do nothing to drop those prison population numbers.

Committee Chairman Elgie Sims (D-Chicago) said it’s an “emotional issue” and that the politics of how to reduce Chicago’s gun violence fuels cynicism from African-American members of the legislature, 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. 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,” Sims said.

While the proposed bill faces opposition from some black lawmakers, it 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 on Thursday tried to win over some holdouts through recent changes he made to the bill, which include the addition of 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, but you won’t do one thing to help them when they get out. That’s a problem,” Mayfield said. 

Similar attempts to pass stricter prison sentences for gun offenders have stalled in the state legislature 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.

Tony Arnold covers state politics for WBEZ. You can follow him at @tonyjarnold.