Panel to debate gun laws, how to reduce Illinois prison population

July 15, 2014

Teenagers who spend their days at Precious Blood Ministries in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood borrow dress clothes from a clothes rack there before court appearances. Father David Kelly at Precious Blood says a panel of Illinois lawmakers should consider community organizations when looking at ways to reduce the prison population.

A small panel of Illinois lawmakers meets this week with a lofty goal. It wants to find a way to reduce the prison population, cut down on recidivism, but still enforce strict laws.A small panel of Illinois lawmakers meets this week with a lofty goal. It wants to find a way to reduce the prison population, cut down on recidivism, but still enforce strict laws.

Illinois State Rep. Mike Zalewski is gathering the committee to look at the big picture on prisons. They’ll discuss overcrowding in Illinois’ prisons and the billion dollars they cost taxpayers each year. Zalewski said he’s tired of not doing anything about it.

“I heard statistics somewhere that the average stay sometimes for a first-time marijuana user in the Department of Corrections is like 12 days if they don’t get an I-bond. 12 days. That’s insane,” he said in an interview at his downtown Chicago law office.

But low level drug offenses isn’t all Zalewski is looking at. He’ll also be bringing back one proposal that’s been debated for years, but never got enough support. A previous version of the proposal would’ve send people convicted of certain gun crimes to prison for three years, end of story. No early release.

But even though it hasn’t gotten enough ‘yes’ votes, it hasn’t gone away because Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy talks about it constantly.

“Possession of a loaded firearm is not even considered a violent felony in the State of Illinois for sentencing purposes,” McCarthy told reporters last week. “Which is why you see the revolving door. Which is why you see people getting arrested with guns over and over again.”

Zalewski has carried bills for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel before. But with this gun bill, he’s up against some strong opponents.

The National Rifle Association is one. They say lawful gun owners who improperly carry a gun and get caught would have to go away for three years.

Many black lawmakers are also fighting it, saying just locking people up doesn’t truly address gun violence issues in their communities.

Zalewski says a negotiated version might send someone to prison for less than three years, or punish someone more on their first gun offense.

“I think people are so worn out by my bill and by the budget problems we have,” Zalewski said. “And they’re sick of seeing the Department of Corrections have these budget issues and having guys sleep in gymnasiums, there’s just a real appetite to, ‘Let’s do something.’”

Art Lurigio says it’s good to recognize that Illinois’ criminal justice system need to change. It’s just a matter of what that change is.

“Research suggests that it’s not the severity of the punishment that has a deterrent effect, but the certainty of punishment,” said Lurigio, a psychology professor and criminologist at Loyola University.

Lurigio’s point is that research shows people with guns don’t necessarily worry about how long they’ll spend behind bars, it’s whether they’ll get caught. He said alternatives to prison can actually have more of a positive effect than locking up low-level criminals.

“We’re keeping a lot of money to keep people locked up in prison,” he said. “The time that they spend in prison is time away from them ever having an opportunity to change their life trajectory unless they’re fully engaged in services.

That’s where Father David Kelly comes in.

Because while Rep. Zalewski and lawmakers are dealing with end of the criminal justice process - prisons - Father Kelly deals with the beginning of that process: kids who are getting in trouble.

“These drums are used in the juvenile detention center. We do drumming circles at juvenile detention center. So I’m the chaplain at Cook County Juvenile, as well,” said Kelly, who runs Precious Blood Ministries in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago.

As he gives me a tour of the center, which is a former school, he shows me a clothes rack with dress clothes for the teenagers who have upcoming court appearances. Precious Blood deals mostly with teens who have already been arrested and done time.

Kelly said whatever the laws are that do pass, he wants to see more neighborhood programs.

“Rather than harsher laws, harsher gun penalties, let’s punish our way out of this, I just don’t think there’s an end to that,” Kelly said. “ I don’t think that will get us anywhere but fill our jails and prisons and then take the minimum resources we do have here in the community away.”

Kelly said the young people he interacts with now are the ones statistics show are going to end up testing out the laws Rep. Zalewski is thinking of changing. And the best way to make sure they don’t end up testing those laws and getting arrested doesn’t come from legislators, but from getting more people in the community involved.

Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.

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