Bill to increase Illinois prison sentences for gun crimes gets watered down

November 6, 2013

Flickr/Jason Dunnivant
Illinois Capitol in Springfield.

Illinois lawmakers are whittling down legislation that would increase the minimum prison time for some people convicted of illegal gun use. The bill has been weakened a lot this week through negotiations, but the idea is still to put those caught using a gun illegally behind bars for longer periods of time.

In its latest form, the mandatory minimum bill would primarily affect convicted felons or known gang members, requiring them to serve four years if found guilty of gun crimes.

The National Rifle Association successfully lobbied to remove a part of the bill that would have required prison time for first-time offenders.

“I think we made significant, substantive concessions in this bill while keeping the spirit of the bill, which is protecting the state - public safety,” said State. Rep. Michael Zalewski, D-Riverside. “We’re going to  get a bill that goes after violent criminals with guns and that’s what we wanted.”

Meantime, a spokesman for Illinois’ prison system said the new bill would still be expensive.

And some African-American lawmakers also spoke against the proposed mandatory minimums bill, saying it shifts the cost and political responsibilities of Chicago’s violent crime problem onto the state.

“I don’t believe that this proposal will, in any way, be the answer for gun violence, especially in the City of Chicago,” said Rep. Art Turner, D-Chicago.

Another critic of the bill, John Maki with the prison watchdog group John Howard Association, said the political power behind the bill should have been turned on judges who assign sentences, not toward legislation addressing sentencing guidelines.

“All the political pressure that I’ve seen put into this bill, from the City of Chicago to Springfield, put it on the judges, then,” he said. “If the judicial system is as broken as everyone says it is, focus this energy on that.”

After hearing some criticisms during Wednesday’s hearing, an exasperated Zalewski, who has negotiated the bill with both the NRA and Chicago area Democrats who say mandatory minimums don’t reduce crime, vented his frustrations to the House Judiciary Committee.

“It becomes increasingly, increasingly difficult not to take it personally at that point when the goal line keeps being moved,” he said.

The committee approved his latest version of the bill, 12 to 2. After the vote, Zalewski said he didn’t know if it would be called for a vote in the full House, or what the bill’s future would look like in the Senate.