In 2016, as Chicago was dealing with a staggering rise in gun violence, Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson repeatedly blamed the city’s violence problem on lax gun laws and said police needed more tools to go after so-called repeat gun offenders.
“We absolutely drop the ball when it comes to holding people accountable,” Johnson told reporters at a press conference marking 5,000 illegal guns recovered in 2016.
That same year, in a major speech at Malcolm X College, Mayor Rahm Emanuel warned of “the revolving door for repeat gun offenders.”
In 2017, Johnson went to Springfield to testify on the issue. A month after that, then-Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a law that increased the prison time for repeat gun offenders.
Benjamin Ruddell, director of criminal justice policy at the ACLU of Illinois, said the 2017 legislation “sprang from the mayor’s office and got done because the Mayor’s office was down [in Springfield] using their political capital and resources.”
Experts say it’s an example of a crucial but sometimes overlooked part of the job for the mayor of Chicago: using the resources and influence of the office to shape state laws and advance the mayor’s criminal justice agenda.
Dennis Reboletti, a former prosecutor and state lawmaker, said Chicago’s mayor shapes a lot of the conversation around criminal justice in Springfield.
“You have the largest police department in the state … and so anything that’s going to happen legislatively is definitely going to impact the Chicago Police Department and their ability to respond. So you want to make sure at a statewide level, ‘how is this going to impact Chicago?’” Reboletti said. “They have the ability to set an agenda; they have the ability to control media and garner attention towards issues.”
So how will the next mayor of Chicago wield that power?
To find out, WBEZ sent a list of current or potential state bills to candidates Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle.
The questions were based on conversations with criminal justice experts and advocates, and the responses show agreement between the two candidates on all of the issues highlighted by WBEZ.
Lightfoot and Preckwinkle both agree the state should ban the use of cash bond in criminal cases, they believe the state should reduce the use of mandatory minimums in sentencing and they’re both opposed to a current bill that would require mandatory time in youth prison for juveniles convicted of repeat gun crimes.
“I am opposed to all mandatory sentences or prison time for juveniles who are repeat gun offenders,” Preckwinkle said in a statement. “Mandatory minimums are not sound policy decisions because they remove judicial discretion.”
The two candidates also support a controversial proposal to gradually raise the age in which young people are eligible to be tried in juvenile court.
The legislation would raise the juvenile court age from 18 to 21 for misdemeanors starting in 2022.
In a statement, Lightfoot pointed to research showing “young people do not reach cognitive maturity until at least age 22” and said the juvenile court eligibility should account for that new understanding of young people’s brains.
The Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police opposes increasing the age at which someone is treated as a juvenile and has made it a legislative priority, saying it would lead to an increase in criminal activity.
“Most gang members are within the impacted age group and this would subject many offenders to far more lenient penalties. Juvenile incarceration is an expensive proposition, outstripping the costs of adult prison by a factor of two or three,” the group says on its website.
While Preckwinkle and Lightfoot are aligned on the major legislative questions, Preckwinkle’s time as Cook County Board president has given her the opportunity to try and influence state legislation.
Experts say Preckwinkle has made the county a major player on criminal justice issues in Springfield. Her legislative priorities show a focus on young people charged with crimes. They also reflect an agenda that’s cheered by many progressive reformers, but that runs counter to law-and-order groups like the police chiefs association.
Elizabeth Clarke, founder of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, said Preckwinkle’s influence on criminal justice legislation has been “transformative.”
“I think what her leadership has been about is finding the most effective approaches to reduce violence and repair harm in communities,” Clarke said.
In 2017, Preckwinkle successfully championed legislation to increase confidentiality for juvenile court records to try and ensure that a child’s law enforcement record would not prevent them from getting future employment or education.
The police chiefs association opposed the legislation, calling it “odious” and “detrimental to law enforcement and society.”
In 2015, Preckwinkle backed legislation that restricted the transfer of juveniles to adult court. Clarke said the change has meant better results for young people, and she said it would not have passed without Preckwinkle’s support.
That so-called automatic transfer legislation is one of many spots where Preckwinkle and Reboletti, the former lawmaker, disagree.
“[Those who support the legislation] believe that more and more people should be treated in the juvenile system. I think that’s a mistake,” Reboletti said.
Reboletti described he and Preckwinkle as looking at criminal justice issues through “different glasses.”
“For me I’ve always believed that, you know, you have to take the guns off the street and the people that are using them,” Reboletti said. “I think that’s probably where you would see some different beliefs between myself and [Preckwinkle].”
WBEZ’s Shannon Heffernan contributed reporting for this story.
Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice desk. Follow him @pksmid.