Illinois Senate advances plan to crack down on repeat gun felons

A revamped plan to crack down on repeat gun crimes amid a spike of street violence in Chicago was approved by the Illinois Senate Thursday despite continued opposition from those who contend it would put more minorities behind bars.

An earlier version of the plan to raise minimum sentences for some repeat gun crime felons stalled last month despite the high-profile backing of Chicago Police Department Superintendent Eddie Johnson. It's almost always difficult to pass gun legislation in Springfield, where widely varying regional attitudes toward firearms complicate the politics. The broad nature of this proposal also drew complaints from different directions, which maintained it was too soft on drug criminals or too hard on minorities.

Over the last several weeks, Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul of Chicago worked to ease some of those concerns among opponents, including Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's office. Key to that effort was stripping provisions that would have softened penalties on certain drug crimes. Police contended drug sales fuel gun crimes, and Republicans said decreasing prison time for convicted dealers would send the wrong message as a heroin epidemic grips the suburbs.

"The governor is pleased to have reached an agreement on this important legislation," Rauner spokesman Lance Trover said.

The changes were enough for the legislation to clear the Senate with a vote of 35-9, sending it to the House. However, several African-American Democrats voted "present" in a form of protest, saying the proposed increased sentences would lead to higher incarceration of minorities without addressing a lack of economic opportunity causing violence.

"Locking up more people is not a solution to gun violence," said Sen. Jacqueline Collins, D-Chicago.

Raoul countered that the measure would not put more people behind bars but rather target those most likely to commit violence.

"Kids are dying," Raoul said. "If this saves one life, it is worth it."

The legislation would increase the sentencing guidelines for judges deciding punishment for some repeat gun felons. Instead of a range of three to 14 years, judges would hand out sentences in the range of seven to 14 years. If they wanted to depart from that guideline, they would have to explain why.

It's a different approach at the Capitol, where previous efforts have fizzled. In 2013, for example, lawmakers failed in a high-profile attempt to raise the mandatory minimum sentence for offenders of first-time illegal gun possession from one year to three years. Opponents then, including Raoul, argued that measure cast too wide a net that would result in a spike of arrests in minority communities.

Since then, Chicago has seen a surge of street violence, and last year the city had its highest number of homicides in about 20 years.

In a prepared statement about the bill, Johnson said the sentencing guidelines are "a pivotal step" in going after repeat gun offenders in a city where 91 percent of the more than 760 homicide victims in 2016 were killed with a gun.

"Using a spear to pinpoint the individuals that are driving the violence on our streets, this bill would ensure that the arrests officers make are followed through upon to keep violent criminals out of our communities," Johnson said.

The measure also includes several other changes to the criminal justice system that arose out of a bipartisan panel put in place by Rauner in an effort to reduce the state's prison population.

That includes relaxing the size of "drug-free" zones from 1,000 to 500 feet. Additionally, increased penalties for selling drugs in a protected area such as a school would only apply if the crime is committed during school hours, or when children under 18 are otherwise expected to be on the grounds. In addition, the measure would remove public housing from being labeled as a protected area, in an effort to reduce the impact that law has on poor and minority communities.

Chicago Tribune's Jeremy Gorner contributed.

mcgarcia@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @moniquegarcia

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