October 20, Chicago Sun-Times
Mandatory minimum sentences, touted by some as a cure for gun crimes, are little more than a power grab by prosecutors.
The intent of a mandatory minimum sentence is to make sure that people convicted of certain serious crimes get prison time and not a slap on the wrist, such as probation. But in the real world, that's not what happens.
In the real world, this is what happens: Mandatory minimums, dictated by law, make it impossible for judges to use common-sense discretion when imposing sentences, so judges must nail some poor sap who simply made a foolish mistake with the same harsh sentence they would impose on a hardened criminal. But those mandatory minimums do nothing to reduce the ability of prosecutors to use discretion when deciding what charges — light or heavy — to file against a defendant. The indirect result is that prosecutors, not judges, set the sentence.
Legislation that might be called to a vote this week in Springfield would triple Illinois' mandatory minimum sentence from one to three years for people convicted of the illegal use of a weapon, and it would broaden the kinds of crimes covered. An earlier version advanced out of committee in the spring legislative session, but ultimately died. The bill is backed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Police Supt. Garry McCarthy and the families of some gun crime victims. McCarthy says 108 shootings or murders so far in 2013 would have been prevented had the bill already been a law this year. He cited the case of Bryon Champ, convicted in 2012 of the unlawful use of a weapon, who is accused of taking part in a September drive-by shooting that injured 13 in Chicago's Cornell Square Park.
The thinking behind mandatory minimum sentences is that prosecutors can be better trusted than judges to mete out tough punishment. Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez criticizes judges for being "quite lenient." But most judges in the criminal court system are former prosecutors. And from 2010 through 2012, about 14,000 people were charged in three categories of unlawful use of a weapon, but the number of convictions was less than half of that. Changing sentences in cases where there is no conviction wouldn't make any difference.
In analyzing the bill, the University of Chicago Crime Lab estimated that putting more people in prison would lead to 3,800 fewer crimes per year, including 400 fewer serious violent crimes.
But the Sentencing Policy Advisory Council calculates that had the stricter mandatory minimum law been in effect from 2010 through 2012, it would have boosted prison costs by about $393 million.
On the national level, the Obama administration is trying to curb mandatory minimum sentencing, which is an idea that goes back to the 1980s. Illinois should be doing so as well.