Have Illinois lawmakers lost their appetite for mandatory minimums?

Have Illinois lawmakers lost their appetite for mandatory minimums?

On Tuesday, a much anticipated debate over Illinois Rep. Michael Zalewski’s (D-23rd) bill to require hard time for illegal gun possession was abruptly cancelled, signaling that his colleagues in the House aren’t lining up behind it. At least, not in the numbers he needs if it’s going to pass.

Regular readers may recall the proposal, which we wrote about in March. It calls for tripling prison time for felons, gang members and just about anyone else convicted of illegally carrying a loaded gun in Illinois. The death knell on the first go-around was the price tag, which would likely exceed $1.3 billion over the next decade. Zalewski—and other staunch supporters, namely Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez—put the bill on ice. The hope was that they could rally support for the fall veto session, which began this week.

On day one of the veto session, support appeared tepid in the House Judiciary Committee, where testimony was tabled at the last minute. John Maki, the executive director of the John Howard Association, an Illinois prison reform group, says that the behind-the-scenes debate that the bill is getting is nothing short of “extraordinary.”

Discussion has been heated across the state but nowhere more than in Chicago, where more young people have been killed  than any other major city in America. A debate in the City Council last week came down along racial lines. Among the outspoken critics was Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) who said that the African American community, which is bearing the brunt of the murders, is tired of having “Class X felonies driven down our throats.”

Meanwhile, parents of high-profile murder victims have stood with Emanuel and McCarthy calling for stiffer sentencing. Among them is Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton who said, “It's like rubbing salt in an open wound” knowing that the man who shot her 15-year-old daughter, Hadiya, could have been in prison if stiffer sentences were already on the books.

Because of that sort of sentiment, Maki said, “This is the kind of bill that would have been a slam dunk 10 years ago.”

But lawmakers, and the public, are sending a clear signal: they have mandatory minimum fatigue. And who can blame them. Over the past decade, we spent $5.3 billion locking Chicagoans up. Most hailed from just a handful of blocks, where we spent more money incarcerating adults than educating children. Mandatory minimums played a big part in that, including a similar gun bill that hasn’t proven all that effective.

The real test will be whether Zalewski’s bill will pass favor with state lawmakers. Only time will tell if he will call the bill for debate before the veto session comes to a close in two weeks.

The clock is ticking.

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