The truth about our bill aimed at repeat gun offenders

It seems everyone — from pundits to presidents — wants a piece of the cottage industry of offering solutions to breaking the cycle of gun violence in Chicago. Given the city's mounting number of homicides, it's surprising that the Safe Neighborhoods Reform Act, a plan that zeros in on repeat gun offenders, is being attacked.

Nearly a year in the making, the bill was honed in consultation with law enforcement officials, judges, criminal justice advocates, victims and criminal offenders. The process has been transparent throughout. But it's time once again to dispel myths surrounding the proposed legislation, which awaits approval in Springfield.

Myth: This is just another tough-on-crime policy that will contribute to the mass incarceration of black and brown males.

Facts: While directing judges toward handing out longer sentences for repeat gun offenders, the bill expands alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent, first-time offenders and reduces sentences for many nonviolent crimes. The state Department of Corrections estimates that over a 10-year period, Safe Neighborhoods will reduce Illinois' inmate population by nearly 1,500 and achieve a savings of $62 million.

Myth: It's mandatory minimums by another name.

Facts: Illinois already has mandatory minimums for gun offenses. My plan calls for repeat offenders to be sentenced more harshly than first-time offenders. It will also cushion the impact of mandatory sentencing minimums for nonviolent gun offenders.

Myth: Judges would lose discretion.

Facts: Safe Neighborhoods preserves judicial discretion through sentencing ranges that are presumptive, not mandatory. When a judge believes circumstances warrant a lighter sentence, he or she may depart from the recommended range if the reasons for doing so are specified at the time of sentencing.

Myth: The legislation will punish people whose neighborhoods are so dangerous that they illegally carry a firearm for self-defense.

Facts: The act poses no threat to anyone who legally owns and carries a firearm. Moreover, we should all be offended by the characterization that most people who live in high-crime neighborhoods are lawbreakers. It feeds into the stereotypes that brought us racial profiling and stop-and-frisk, tactics based on the assumption that in certain areas a black or brown man must be doing something wrong.

Ultimately, the objective of criminal justice reform is to help maintain safe, flourishing communities. Besieged neighborhoods deserve a break from the cycle of gun violence. And repeat gun offenders deserve stiffer prison sentences and opportunities for rehabilitation before they re-enter society.

State Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, represents the 13th Senate District of Illinois.

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