Police Superintendent Johnson asks lawmakers to lengthen sentences for gun crimes

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson talks with reporters at the City of Chicago Public Safety Headquarters on Feb. 27, 2017.

A plan to impose stiffer sentences for felons convicted of gun crimes narrowly cleared an early hurdle Thursday after Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson asked state lawmakers for help in cracking down on repeat offenders.

Johnson appeared before an Illinois Senate committee to back the proposal, which would increase the sentencing guidelines for judges deciding punishment for 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. A judge could depart from that guideline under certain circumstances.

Johnson has for months has been calling for lawmakers to take action as the Chicago Police Department continues to face a surge of street violence in the city.

"This is about creating a culture of accountability," he said.

Still, the superintendent fielded questions from some Democratic lawmakers about whether the proposal would be effective in deterring Chicago violence. And Republicans worried about other aspects of the proposal, including one that could ease penalties for some drug-related crimes.

In the end, the committee agreed to advance the plan to the Senate floor by a narrow 6-5 vote, but some lawmakers’ skepticism could leave its future in question.

The sentencing changes debated Thursday is 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 first-time illegal gun possession offenders from one year to three years. Opponents, led by the legislature’s Black Caucus, raised concerns about increased incarceration they said would hit minorities hardest, suggesting rehabilitation and jobs programs were needed instead.

Since then, a surge in Chicago street violence is now in its second year. Last year, the city had its highest number of homicides in 20 years. President Donald Trump has publicly pressured the city to act. And three children recently were killed in the span of a few days.

To address the Black Caucus’ concerns, sponsors say the new measure would give judges the discretion to impose a lesser sentence depending on various factors such as the age and mental capacity of an offender, whether the offender was coerced or cooperated with law enforcement in prosecuting another felon.

Supporters say giving judges such an option is designed to target gang members who take advantage of gun laws with deadly consequences, while leaving flexibility for those who aren’t violent criminals but made a poor decision. Mayor Rahm Emanuel Thursday said a move by Springfield would supplement the city’s efforts to curb violence.

"I think if anything, I think Springfield sees what is happening, sees the revolving door that the gangbangers see the criminal justice system, both at the courts, as well as in the jail, as a joke," Emanuel said. "And so this law, I do believe, is ripe. I think the political situation is ripe."

Opponents include the Cook County Public Defender’s office. Its lobbyist Stephen Baker said there’s little evidence that letting judge issue tougher sentences for repeat gun offenders would prevent crime, but he said he liked that the plan would reduce penalties for some drug crimes.

"Deterrence ain’t what it’s cracked up to be," he said.

Baker said there are already laws on the books allowing for stiff punishment for repeat criminals who get caught with firearms, making the legislation "is in some ways cosmetic." He pointed to a law applying to an "armed habitual criminal," which makes it a Class X felony for anyone who sells, possesses or transfers a gun after being twice convicted for felonies such as unlawful use of a weapon, hijacking or battery. A Class X felony carries a sentence of 6 to 30 years.

Baker contended the effort seemed to be designed for officials "to show that we are doing something" about crime rather than a comprehensive effort to crack down on the flow of guns into the city.

The measure also excludes truth-in-sentencing requirements that violent offenders serve most of their sentence before they can be released, a decision co-sponsoring Sen. Kwame Raoul said is designed to "leave room" for offenders to shave time off through rehabilitation programs in prison.

The plan also incorporates numerous ideas that came about during meetings of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s criminal justice task force, charged with finding ways to reduce the prison population. That includes an expansion of programs that makes it easier for first-time, nonviolent offenders to scrub their record after completing probation.

Other changes include relaxing the size of "drug free" zones from 1,000 to 500 feet, and requiring prosecutors to prove a connection between a drug crime and the protected area, such as a school, before that can be factored into toughening a sentence. 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 John Byrne contributed.