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Gun crime sentence reform draws both ire, praise

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013 5:05 p.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013 11:16 p.m. CDT

State lawmakers could use the two-week veto session to take up legislation stiffening sentences for gun crimes.

It's a bill that local defense attorneys are calling Draconian and a prosecutors' power grab, while the county's state's attorney heralds it as being tough on gun violence and a deterrent for would-be offenders.

HB 2265 would require judges to impose a three-year prison sentence for those convicted of illegally packing a loaded gun. Felons and gang members could get 10 years in prison. The pending legislation also requires offenders to serve 85 percent of their sentences.

Chicago-area lawmakers, and Chicago's Mayor Rahm Emanuel hoped to take the bill to vote during the fall veto session. It was scheduled for a committee hearing Tuesday, but the bill's chief sponsor Rep. Mike Zalewski, D-Riverside, called off any action in order to meet with opponents with an eye toward compromise.

Emanuel made it a legislative priority because of the rampant gun violence in Chicago, especially a shooting in a South Side park that wounded 13.

McHenry County State's Attorney Lou Bianchi supports the bill, saying it only "makes sense" given the concealed-carry bill that lawmakers approved earlier this year.

"We're on the eve of allowing law-abiding citizens to carry guns," he said. "It goes hand-in-hand to send a strong message to people carrying loaded guns illegally, to make sure they know that there is a mandatory minimum sentence they could face."

Woodstock-based defense attorney Dan Hofmann worried that the pending bill would impose harsh punishments on those who were perhaps in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"The problem with mandatory minimums is that it ultimately sends people to prison who don't belong there," he said. "And it gives state's attorneys more power that they tend to abuse in prosecution."

Hank Sugden, a Crystal Lake defense attorney and court-appointed special public defender, called it a knee-jerk reaction to gun violence in Illinois.

"I think the danger of mandatory sentences is that you're not making the punishment fit the crime," he said, adding that changing the statute would remove sentencing latitude for judges.

"When you make these laws flat across the board with no give and take for judges. … you're filling the jails with people that don't deserve to be there," Sugden said.

Critics of HB 2265 often point to the cost of housing inmates in Illinois prisons.

The Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council estimates that had the proposed legislation been in place between 2010 and 2012, prison costs would have increased by $394 million.

The John Howard Association of Illinois, a prison watchdog group, says the move would not solve Chicago's gun violence epidemic.

"We believe not only that it will fail to decrease gun violence and create safer communities, but also that it will have profound unintended negative consequences," association Executive Director John Maki said in a statement, adding that there are more cost-effective sentencing alternatives.

But the University of Chicago's Crime Lab disagreed. Their analysis and report on the bill points out that the majority of Chicago's gun-related homicides happened outdoors and after an altercation.

"These data suggest a pattern to much of the gun violence that occurs across the state of Illinois: An argument in some public place turns deadly because someone – often an impulsive young person – has a gun ready at hand," the lab's report read.

Passage of HB 2265 is uncertain, given the ideological divide in Springfield over the Second Amendment. It is also unclear when the bill could return for a committee hearing. The veto session that began Tuesday ends Nov. 7.

• The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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