Talking tough on crime is a favorite pastime in American politics. Actually accomplishing something to reduce crime is not nearly so common.
That's an important distinction for lawmakers to keep in mind as they contemplate a proposal strongly promoted by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel that would establish mandatory minimum sentences for violators of gun laws. For, the final product of such a law may well prove to have much more in the way of cosmetic benefit than practical improvement, and could in fact make many things worse.
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This by no means is meant to imply that support for mandatory sentences is all talk. Quite the contrary, the epidemic of gun crime in Chicago is well documented, and whether in Chicago or anywhere else, the potential for being threatened with a gun is a very serious problem that is not easily subdued. But the response of mandatory minimum sentences -- HB 2265 would establish a three-year minimum and require convicts to serve 85 percent of the time -- has a certain ring of desperation, of a plan too easily undertaken without careful reflection. Add to that the potential cost of implementation and the impact on already overburdened prison populations, and you get the picture of an idea whose time has not yet arrived, if it ever will.
Supporters of mandatory minimums point to a recent University of Chicago analysis that seeks to show that, regardless of whatever may occur with repeat incarceration, mandatory prison sentences would keep enough gun violators off the streets to justify the additional prison costs and significantly reduce the gun crime rate.
But the highly speculative approach of that analysis runs headlong into a Northwestern University study released last week that emphasized the high costs and low promise for mandatory minimums. "The evidence indicates, repeatedly, that mandatory minimum sentences will not reduce gun violence. On the contrary, such restrictions are not only costly, but also counterproductive," wrote fellows Stephanie Kollmann and Dominique Nong from the Northwestern School of Law's Bluhm Legal Clinic.
The effectiveness of mandatory minimums in reducing crime, then, is at least debatable. Add in the undeniable realities of Illinois' crowded prisons and various other social dangers, including that of throwing young, first-time gun offenders into prison with seasoned criminals, and it becomes obvious that implementing a mandatory sentencing law now would be at best premature and at worst actually damaging.
Moreover, there are viable options, including more proactive policing strategies and sentencing alternatives such as the Cook County Boot Camp program, that in the words of the Northwestern researchers "have been proven to reduce risky behavior and violence."
No one denies that, especially with the additional complication of impending concealed-carry rights, police need every possible tool to combat the profusion of illegal guns on our streets. But, so far at least, mandatory minimum prison sentences appear to have more value as a topic of conversation than as a practical and effective strategy.