SPRINGFIELD — The battle to curb gun violence on the streets of Chicago has been waged this week in a seemingly peculiar setting — university labs and classrooms.
A Northwestern University Bluhm Legal Clinic paper released today says a proposal to increase mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes in Illinois — an idea endorsed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and others — is “not only costly, but counterproductive.”
The Northwestern report was endorsed by academics from several universities across the state, countering a University of Chicago paper last week backing a bill that would impose a mandatory, three-year prison sentence on those who are caught carrying a gun illegally.
A University of California, Berkeley criminologist also criticized that report in a Chicago Sun-Times editorial and reiterated his critique in an interview with the Daily Law Bulletin,saying “Chicago needs mandatory minimums like a moose needs a hat rack.”
In their report today, the Northwestern authors claimed mandatory minimum measures in states such as Florida, Massachusetts and Virginia have proven ineffective, and that a widely heralded decline in New York homicides began well before increased minimum sentences were enacted in 2007.
“There is a large body of lively academic debate … about how to measure New York’s success and what might have been most responsible for it,” wrote the authors, Dominique D. Nong and Stephanie Kollmann, researchers at the clinic.
“Suggestions range from ‘hotspot’ policing to the waning of crack cocaine use, to an upswing in religious belief. One conclusion is not debatable: the New York difference was not mandatory minimum sentencing.”
The authors acknowledged research indicating that the threat of “swift and certain” punishments could deter crime, but said under a mandatory minimum structure, “swift and certain” punishments would be impossible to implement.
Quoting evaluations of a study done in Hawaii in 2009, the authors wrote that “[s]everity is the enemy of swiftness and certainty, because a severe penalty will be more fiercely resisted and requires more due process to support it.”
They also estimated that the Illinois proposal could cost $1.86 billion over the next decade.
University of Chicago Crime Lab Director Jens Ludwig estimated last week that, accounting for the costs of the crime that could potentially be deterred through the mandatory minimum proposal, $700 million a year could actually be saved.
“Our best estimate is that there would be 3,800 fewer crimes per year, including 400 serious violent crimes, which would be prevented due to additional incapacitation,” Ludwig said in a statement today.
He said he was “sympathetic” to concerns that tougher sentences would not work, and if there was another way to increase the certainty of punishments in Illinois besides mandatory minimums, he’d be “delighted” to analyze that alternative.
Franklin E. Zimring, the California law professor and crime expert who blasted Ludwig’s analysis and the legislative proposal in an opinion piece on Wednesday, said the rate of people who go to prison for carrying guns is already high, so there would not be much added certainty in enhancing the sentence and making it mandatory.
“That’s probably the most prison-centric response to carrying a concealed weapon that I’ve ever seen — 81 percent of the people get confined and 75 percent go to prison,” Zimring said. “And if those numbers are right, then Chicago needs a mandatory minimum like a moose needs a hat-rack.”
Although points and counterpoints abound, the battle over the current mandatory minimum proposal will ultimately be won in the legislature.
The chief sponsor of the House proposal on mandatory minimums said he’s still trying to get the votes he needs to pass the bill during the General Assembly’s veto session that begins next week.
“The (response) has been better than it was in the spring,” said Rep. Michael J. Zalewski, a Riverside Democrat.
“But you know, it’s still a tough, tough bill, given the controversy surrounding it.”
Staffers for Senate President John J. Cullerton and House Speaker Michael J. Madigan said the two legislative leaders were still assessing the proposal and had not taken a stance on it yet.
“I think I will have the opportunity to call the bill next week, assuming the pieces fall into place. But the situation is in flux, things change,” Zalewski said. “So, I just really am focused on working the roll call right now to try to get to 60 votes.”