Before Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson acknowledged a couple weeks ago that he’s dealing with some challenging medical issues, his top priority was legislative approval of tougher gun sentencing laws in Illinois.
He’s made that clear on numerous occasions, including a recent pitch for support from the Better Government Association.
Now his primary concern should be his health, but finding ways to eradicate Chicago’s “killing fields” is still the city’s most daunting challenge.
We’ve seen the grim statistics over and over: 762 murders in Chicago last year, 56 percent more than the 335 homicides in New York City, which has three times as many people.
Johnson and many others, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, credit New York’s tougher gun laws for the wide disparity: Possession of a firearm, first offense, carries a mandatory three-and-a-half year sentence; in Illinois, on average, it’s less than one year, and under two years the second time.
City Hall argues that more prison time will keep killers off Chicago streets and lower our murder rate, and they’re asking Springfield to enact tougher sentencing laws.
But it’s not that simple.
Consider that in New York:
- Only half of those first-time gun offenders actually end up in jail.
- The homicide rate has been dropping steadily since 1990, but mandatory sentencing wasn’t approved until 2007, after a 90 percent drop in murders.
- Police credit most of their success to other factors, including thousands of additional street cops, data-driven technology to target “hot spots” and violence-prone offenders; and intensive social services in high crime neighborhoods.
Chicago, by all accounts, is still lagging in these areas.
In addition, critics of longer prison sentences compare the new “War on Guns” to the nation’s “War or Drugs” in the ‘70s and ‘80s, which incarcerated thousands of Blacks and Latinos, many unjustly, without appreciably reducing drug trafficking or usage.
Those critics fear similar consequences if police and prosecutors in places like Chicago, with histories of race-based arrests and sentencing, are empowered with draconian gun sentencing laws.
There’s also the cost: One study indicates cash-strapped Illinois would have spent 400 million additional dollars in the past three years if our gun laws were as tough as New York’s.
So where does that leave us? Well, in the wake of the Laquan McDonald shooting scandal, and a U.S. Justice Department investigation, CPD is revamping its training, transparency, accountability and policing procedures, and adding a thousand new officers.
Those reforms will be codified and enforced by a federal watchdog if the Trump administration follows through on its predecessor’s recommendations.
Also, Cook County’s new state’s attorney, Kim Foxx, is promising to reform her scandal-scarred office and attack gun violence more strategically, but she opposes tougher gun sentencing.
In many ways Foxx and Johnson appear to be on the right track, but they have months if not years of work ahead of them to gain the trust of minority communities.
Meanwhile, as President Trump threatens to “send in the feds” to curb Chicago’s violence, experts point out the feds are already here—FBI, DEA, U.S. Attorney—and should be partnering more effectively with CPD.
Others want “send in the feds” to result in an “airlift” of money and manpower for social services, housing, education, mentoring, job training and law enforcement.
My takeaway from all of the above is that tougher gun laws may be one piece of this very large puzzle. But realistically, Mr. Mayor and Mr. Top Cop, they’re of limited value, and perhaps detrimental, without the other pieces.