Over the last year, when Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been asked about gun violence, he’s talked about the need for three-year mandatory minimum sentences for people caught carrying illegal guns.
In many ways the mandatory minimums have been a centerpiece of the mayor’s response to gun violence. His push for longer sentences reached a bit of a fever pitch last week as he held a press conference with the parents of young people who have been killed. With parents struggling to hold back tears, Emanuel reacted to estimates that it would cost as much as $130 million a year to house all the inmates who got the longer sentences.
“I will never, ever, ever, accept the notion that a human life is reduced to whether a state budget can take in the issue from a cost benefit analysis, because there is no way I’m going to look them in the eye and say, ‘Cleo, Nate, Pam, the Worthams, I’d like to give you a cost benefit analysis on how we look at the violent criminals that should have been behind bars,” said Emanuel.
Now one thing about that: Emanuel doesn’t actually need to worry about the cost/benefit analysis because all the costs would fall on the state, which pays for prisons, not on the city of Chicago.
As for the benefits, well, there’s been a lot of hubbub about that recently.
U of C memo challenges the new orthodoxy on mandatory minimums
In response to the price tag, the University of Chicago Crime Lab released a research memo a week and a half ago arguing that Emanuel’s mandatory minimums would actually be a good deal. Given the starring role mandatory minimums have played in this country’s 40-year incarceration binge, Crime Lab Co-Director Harold Pollack says he understands people are skeptical of any effort to increase prison sentences.
“I get that. I respect that,” said Pollack. But, “I don’t think we can allow that real historical context to blind us to the urgent need to deal more effectively and in a more focused way with the gun violence in this city.”
Pollack says we’re not talking about 25 years for drug possession. It’s three years for carrying an illegal gun, a crime that creates a more dangerous environment for everyone.
The Crime Lab memo also argues that giving a three-year sentence to everyone caught carrying an illegal gun will incapacitate offenders who are likely to reoffend and the crimes prevented will save taxpayers ---outweighing the costs of incarceration.
The memo also argues the mandatory minimums will deter crime.
“There’s little evidence that making the consequences any more severe than they already are has a deterrent effect,” said Daniel Nagin from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
Nagin has studied what does deter crime. He says traditionally we’ve thought that the certainty of punishment stops would-be criminals. That’s the idea behind mandatory minimums.
“But when you look more closely at the evidence, the proper conclusion is that the certainty of apprehension is a very effective deterrent,” said Nagin.
And who apprehends criminals? It’s not mandatory minimums. It’s police.
Nagin gives the example of two men getting into an argument. If one of them has a gun nearby, but there’s a police car right there, he’s unlikely to pull out the gun.
If Illinois is willing to spend $130 million on “the problem of gun violence, they should direct those resources to policing,” said Nagin.
Zalewski pushing Emanuel’s bill in Springfield
Mike Zalewski is the state representative sponsoring Emanuel’s mandatory minimum bill in Springfield. We spent an hour talking in his loop law office about why he’s sponsoring this bill, given the cost and the legacy of mandatory minimums.
He cited the crime lab memo but then went on to say, “It’s very nice to have studies and it’s very nice to sit in offices and compile data and think about ways in which the world should work, but we don’t live in that world when we have these shootings and Superintendent McCarthy doesn’t live in that world, and Anita Alvarez doesn’t live in that world and what they’re telling us is they need help and when that happens, when law enforcement cries out for help, it’s our duty to step up,” Zalewski said.
Chicgao Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy has been making the case for mandatory minimums several times a week over the last year, but Frank Zimring, a criminologist who studied the astonishing crime decline in New York doesn’t buy what McCarthy is selling.
“Superintendent McCarthy knows better than he says here,” Zimring said in a phone interview with WBEZ last week. “If you injected truth serum in Superintendent McCarthy, he’d tell you a somewhat different story.”
Zimring says the 80 percent drop in crime and homicides over the last 20 years in New York City could not have been because of mandatory minimums. The mandatory minimums in New York City that McCarthy and Emanuel like to talk about weren’t even passed there until 2006, after most of the crime decline had already occurred.
“What’s going on here is much more theater,” said Zimring.
Mike Tonry agrees. He teaches at the University of Minnesota Law School and is widely respected nationally as an expert on deterrence. He says, “Laws like this are primarily symbolic. They’re primarily a way that public officials can demonstrate that they are doing something about a disturbing problem even though there is no valid basis for believing that that something will make any difference in the real world.”
If Tonry and Zimring are right and this is political theater, it’s pretty heavy theater. At a press conference last week Mayor Emanuel addressed the grieving parents who joined him, including Hadiya Pendleton’s mother.
“I want to thank you for, for taking your personal pain and trying to make it into a public good to make us better. And I know how painful it is to be here, to speak about this and I know this, Cleo, that it brings it all back and makes it fresh again,” said Emanuel.
Researchers seem to agree on what it takes to bring down gun violence
Emanuel has put some money into preventive programs and talks about the need for a comprehensive gun violence strategy. But if you’re looking to reduce gun violence, there’s one thing that all the researchers I talked to agree on: They all say there’s lots of research that shows increasing the number of police brings down gun crime. Zimring, who studied New York City, says that city increased its police department by 41 percent in the 90s and that was one of the keys to its success.
But increasing the size of the Chicago’s police department is one thing Emanuel has not done. Candidate Emanuel promised to use TIF money to hire a thousand new officers. He never did, though he repeatedly told the public he did. In fact, one of his spokespeople made the claim to me again last week.
In reality he shut down some large police units and shifted those officers to beats and said they were new officers on the street. That most certainly was political theater.
The last word will go to Steven Raphael. He teaches public policy at the University of California Berkeley. He has one fairly simple question for Illinois legislators considering Emanuel’s mandatory minimums.
“If you’re going to spend this amount of money to address this problem, what is the best use of these funds? You’ve considered one alternative that at the moment the rest of the country is abandoning and so, is there another way that these monies could be used to combat crime,” Raphael said.
Rep. Zalewski, the sponsor of the bill, says he didn’t have the votes he needed in the spring, but that now may be the right time to bring mandatory minimums to a vote.