Mandatory Minimum Sentencing is a Stopgap for Preventing Gun Violence

Mandatory minimum sentencing is a stopgap for preventing gun violence

Last week, I wrote about a common-sense gun law that southwest suburban Lyons hammered out with a local gun shop owner, and a reader wanted to know my thoughts on a law Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed three years ago.

The reader believes that Emanuel’s proposal would have been a common-sense law in the fight to reduce Chicago’s gun violence. The proposal called for increasing the mandatory minimum jail term from one year to three for a person convicted of using an illegal gun while committing a crime. It also would have mandated that at least 85 percent of the sentence be served.

But the proposal petered out in Springfield after facing opposition by the black caucus of legislators.

The reader wrote: “Now, wouldn’t removing convicted gun-toting criminals and ‘gangbangers’ (who are using illegally obtained guns) from the streets of troubled communities be a very positive step toward reducing on-going gun violence? … Is there some possible downside (non-political) to this approach that I am failing to recognize? If so, could you please enlighten me?”

OK, I’ll bite.

Let me start by saying there’s no question that bad people who do illegal things should be locked up. But I have two major problems with mandatory minimum sentencing.

I think it’s highly unlikely that threatening thugs with extra prison time will deter them from getting illegal guns and shooting up neighborhoods. Let me put it another way: Any terrorist who shoots into a crowd and hits innocent bystanders values neither his life nor the lives of others.

So, do we really think that person is a respecter of prison terms?

That would be like telling a suicide bomber not to set off his explosives because, if caught, he might face a harsher punishment. Do we think he’d care?

The threat of prison, no matter the sentence, is most powerful when people place a premium on their freedom and believe they have something to lose. Too many of the gun-wielding young men who terrorize Chicago’s streets simply don’t feel this way.

I understand why this get-tough-on-crime approach is alluring. It helps people, primarily those living outside tough communities, feel safer and more secure. It doesn’t, however, do anything for the underlying conditions — the lack of jobs and opportunity, the hopelessness — that lead people to pick up guns in the first place.

As long as those conditions exist, so will the mayhem and the disregard for life.

Elizabeth Clarke, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, expertly explains my second problem with mandatory minimums. And that is the lack of discretion that it gives judges.

“The judge can’t take into consideration things like the degree of culpability and the potential for change and rehabilitation for the individual,” she said. “So people end up pleading to lesser offenses whether they’re guilty or not because they’re afraid of a mandatory minimum if they lose at trial.”

Clarke said that what we should be advocating for are individualized sentences that are proportionate to the offense.

A report released last year by the National Academy of Sciences agrees. The report examined the history of incarceration in the United States and the unprecedented growth rate of our prison and jail populations. (This country makes up 5 percent of the world’s population but has nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.)

The 464-page report said two factors have contributed to the buildup: a drug war that criminalized what was essentially a public health issue, and long prison terms and mandatory minimums.

So, where has 40 years of this delivered us?

“Those who are incarcerated in U.S. prisons come largely from the most disadvantaged segments of the population,” the report’s authors wrote. “They comprise mainly minority men under age 40, poorly educated, and often carrying additional deficits of drug and alcohol addiction, mental and physical illness, and a lack of work preparation or experience. Their criminal responsibility is real, but it is embedded in a context of social and economic disadvantage.”

Mass incarceration has devastated families and communities. The conclusion is that we as a country can’t afford to continue to just lock people up. We all know that our prison system does a better job at warehousing than rehabilitating. And, rarely does leaving folks in prison longer actually help fix them.

Indeed there are some people who need to be in prison — I can’t stress that enough — but there are many who don’t need to be there. No mandatory anything helps make that judgment.

If we want to stop gun violence, we have to make it tougher for bad guys to get guns. That’s why suburban Lyons’ new gun law, although not perfect, is important.

Among its provisions: Village gun shops must maintain electronic records, including a “do not sell” list of people who bought guns that were recovered at crime scenes. And gun shop owners must immediately report any person who tries to buy a gun illegally to the local authorities.

But, in the end, this, too, is just a bandage.

If we really want to stop the violence, we have to work harder on the myriad social problems affecting our toughest communities. We have to give people a reason to feel they have something to lose. Because the only time they act that way is when they really do.

Read the Chicago Tribune article here.